If you’re looking into warehouse software these days, you’re probably wading through an alphabet soup of acronyms, and possibly struggling to figure out the differences. That’s because, as software vendors continue to enhance their offerings and expand the functionalities of their platforms, the distinctions between warehouse management systems (WMS), a warehouse control systems (WCS), and a warehouse execution systems (WES) have become less, well, distinct.


Here’s how I define the functional differences — and the operational benefits — of each software system:


Warehouse Management Systems (WMS). The most mature system of the three, WMS has been used in warehouses, distribution centers and fulfillment operations for roughly four decades. At its core, a WMS manages and coordinates inventory, as well as dictates the actions to be taken within the facility to handle that inventory. Utilizing a WMS streamlines and automate complex processes throughout the end-to-end operation, from receiving to shipping and all points in between.


As WMS have evolved over the years, they’ve become an increasingly robust inventory management tool. Today, as part of their evolution, WMS can be hosted online or in the Cloud instead of onsite. This limits the need for in-house information technology (IT) experts dedicated to managing and upgrading the system, as updates are automatically pushed to license holders.


Further, most of today’s WMS can be enhanced with additional functionality at the flip of an (electronic) switch with what the industry refers to as “configuration management.” If an operation needs a labor management system (LMS), a yard management system (YMS), or a transportation management system (TMS), these modules can be easily switched on as needed. Cloud-based delivery of a WMS has also enabled new pricing models, such as software-as-a-service (SaaS), making a powerful tool much more affordable for smaller operations who can customize their WMS functionality to get exactly what they need.


Warehouse Control Systems (WCS). With the advent of automated equipment — primarily built with programmable logic controllers (PLCs) to direct the operation of the machinery — it became necessary to develop software that could communicate the instructions of the WMS to the automation. Therein came the development of the WCS. The WCS controls the actions of conveyors, scanners, print-and-apply labelers, sorters, automated storage and retrieval systems and more, making routing decisions to execute the directions from the WMS as efficiently as possible.


Warehouse Execution Systems (WES). The newest software offering available, WES blends warehouse control with some tasks traditionally handled by a WMS. WES technology has allowed WCS vendors to add some of the less complicated functionality of a WMS, while maintaining the basic equipment control of a WCS. WES handles most order planning, intelligently releases tasks, synthesizes all the current work and continuously reprioritizes it for the optimal process flow. This solution is typically deployed in hybrid manual plus automation facilities, or in completely automated distribution centers, to help fill high-velocity orders with specific order delivery deadlines, reallocating labor to match workflows. It also integrates a variety of semi-automated solutions, such as goods-to-person technologies, pick-to-light systems, voice systems, and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs).


What’s the right software match for your operation?


One of the basic rules of thumb is to consider the complexity of your operation. Generally speaking, a less-complex operation will often find a WMS is more than adequate for warehouse operations. Examples might include a small operation, one that’s entirely manual (with no automation), or limited to one or two facilities.


Conversely, a large corporation with inventory spread across multiple warehouses, a third-party logistics (3PL) services provider, or e-commerce fulfillment operation with automation would have the level of complexity that calls for the functionality of a WMS (plus a WCS or possibly a WES). Notably, many large organizations utilize enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, some of which incorporate WMS functions as well.


A good first step to sorting out which of these three software packages is best for your operation is to create a “wish list” of the desired functionalities. Consider what functions you need, what level of automation you have (or anticipate adding in the near- or long-term), and what challenges you’re facing in your current system. Knowing your operations’ needs will make it easier to evaluate potential software solutions and their functionalities to determine which is the optimal fit.


Need more help figuring out if your operation should implement a WMS, WCS or WES — or which one to deploy? Connect with us; we’re happy to assist you with making those decisions.


Chris Smith, Senior Software Consultant, chriss@designedconveyor.com

Chris Smith brings 15 years of experience in the material handling industry. The vast majority of his experience comes from a software engineering background where he created leading WMS solutions in manual and automated warehouses. His roles have also included Solutions Architecture, managing commissioning and quality assurance, and managing pre-sales engineering efforts on large airports nationwide. He is passionate about leveraging his experience to help grow DCS as a software consultant, and he enjoys spending time with his family and golfing outside of work.