WMS, WCS or WES-What Does Your Business Need?

4 questions to ask before evaluating WMS, WCS or WES

In the beginning….

Warehouse operations were completely manual.  Instructions and directives to warehouse workers were passed along verbally.  Processes and vital information were retained by long term employees and passed down from person to person, sometimes without even being written down.  Paper, pencil and clipboards were everywhere, and vital to day-to-day warehouse operations were undocumented and unchecked.  Errors were frequent and order fulfillment seemed to take forever…

Eventually, computers became an important tool in warehouse and distribution center facilities.  Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) came into use to move pallets up higher within warehouse facilities.  In the late 1980s, supply chain companies began to utilize computers, in a more rudimentary way, to reduce the amount of inventory and aid in inventory control.  Database-driven computer systems updated inventory counts at established intervals.

With the introduction of barcodes and laser scanners, networking technologies, radio frequency data collection terminals and less expensive computers, the stage was set for warehouse management systems to really take off in the industry.

Between the late ‘90s and the early 2000s, computing power and speed increased.  Initially, warehouse management systems required a great deal of human intervention.  Warehouse workers had to key in essential information, making the data prone to high rates of errors.  Warehouse operations are typically fast-paced-orders going out, new inventory coming into the facilities.  Warehouse workers do not usually have time to wait for a warehouse management system to be updated.  Because of this, data was often outdated or inaccurate.  Warehouse operators were required to increase safety stock rates, driving up inventory carrying costs.

As time went on, goods were no longer moved exclusively by the pallet.  Case picking was no longer the norm.  Supply chain companies started dealing with more complicated operations such as split cases, faster turnaround for order fulfillment and other complexities.  Challenges dealing with warehouse labor emerged.  Cloud technologies were introduced and pushed out in the supply chain industry on a more expansive scale.  As time went on, supply chain software vendors increased their offerings of cloud warehouse management software, enabling WMS to be managed anywhere that had Internet access.

As e-commerce rocked the supply chain industry, increasing the need for piece picking, fast, accurate order fulfillment, real time order and shipment visibility and shipment and delivery confirmation, supply chain companies increasingly turned to automation, material handling solutions and warehouse control systems (WCS) to meet the new challenges.   

Over the years, warehouse execution systems (WES) have arisen as an alternative, a hybrid solution to provide enhanced product offerings geared towards ramped up fulfillment and distribution warehouse operations. 

First, let’s take a look at each of these systems before we examine a few questions to consider before starting an evaluation process for new material handling equipment and technology.

What is a Warehouse Management System?

In the hierarchy of software used in warehouses and distribution centers, a warehouse management system (WMS) is the highest level.  A WMS communicates with an ERP or proprietary host system.  Warehouse management systems are designed specifically to manage, track and provide visibility of inventory within warehouses.  The location of inventory can be pinpointed to one that is within material handling equipment or storage space.  Warehouse management software retains data records on inventory including receiving, where it is positioned (putaway), moved, shipped and more.  WMS systems rely on an established set of rules and logic and configure parameters for operational processes accordingly.

More complex and feature rich than inventory management software, a WMS can be used with bar codes and RF-enabled mobile computing devices to capture and utilize data in warehouse business processes.  This provides real time visibility and enables the automatic collection of data for use in reporting and business intelligence solutions.

Here are some of the most notable capabilities of a WMS:

  • Inventory management, inventory control and track and trace
  • Management of inbound and outbound operations
  • Physical inventory counts and cycle counts
  • Inventory replenishment
  • Order fulfillment operations
  • Shipping management
  • Labor management
  • Planning, slotting, reverse logistics
  • Transportation planning
  • Information visibility
  • Reporting and business intelligence
  • Connectivity to external systems such as to an ERP system, accounting software, WCS, WES, MRP, TMS and more

What is a Warehouse Control System?

A warehouse control system is used to move inventory via intelligent material handling systems. A WCS contains the move logic.  Inventory is introduced into the automated material handling system.  The WCS is designed to move that inventory but does not need to know which inventory is moved.  The WMS also does not need to have the knowledge of how the inventory fulfills orders.  When dealing with automated storage and retrieval systems, a WCS must have the location logic for the inventory stored within the AS/RS and may need some inventory data to execute some operations.

Today, warehouses are incorporating the Internet of Things (IoT) into warehouse operations.  Data can be captured throughout the warehouse using sensors, RFID and intelligent forklifts and other IoT-enabled devices.  The data is then fed into systems that use the information to power operation and may also be used for sophisticated analysis and insight to improve performance. 

A warehouse control system directs real time activity within warehouse and distribution center facilities.  The brain which “directs traffic” within the warehouse or distribution center, the WCS ensures that operations run smoothly.  Part of the responsibility of the WCS is to maximize the efficiency of material handling subsystems and activities performed by warehouse workers.

The WCS features a uniform interface to a wide array of material handling equipment which includes conveyor systems, carousels, sorters, palletizers, AS/RS and more.  The WCS allocates work to various material handling sub-systems and balances the activity to accomplish the workload specified.  Material handling equipment controllers and operators are provided with real time directive communications to execute order fulfillment and inventory routing requirements.

A WCS interfaces with an upper level host system, a warehouse management system with which it exchanges the data required to manage day-to-day warehouse operations.  The system generates result data files which can be uploaded by the host system (WMS) and used for reporting.  Statistical data regarding operational performance of the WCS is collected to provide insight and can be used by the warehouse operations staff for a variety of purposes.

As with other systems, the functionality of a warehouse control system is developed to work in concert with another system.  The integrated processes connect the lower level control system with that of the host systems.   

Here are some of the most notable capabilities of a WCS:
  • Planning of batches or waves
  • Communication with automation equipment
  • Inventory picking as part of the overall order fulfillment process
  • Information visibility of license plate tracking, business intelligence and reporting on the WCS, etc.

What is a Warehouse Execution System?

Equivalent to a manufacturing execution system (MES), a warehouse execution system is used in warehouses and distribution centers, especially in high volume, e-commerce fulfillment operations.  With today’s dramatic shift towards rapid order fulfillment processing for two day or less shipments direct to consumers, warehouse and distribution centers need advanced technology that can shave seconds off transactions and ensure nearly 100% accuracy.  There is somewhat of a gap between WMS and WCS functionality.  Using a warehouse execution system can offset the missing functionality of those two systems and provide supply chain companies with the higher-level execution capabilities needed to meet consumer and customer demands and expansion of their markets.

 Warehouse execution systems were developed to organize, sequentially present and synchronize the labor resources required to complete the order fulfillment process. To accomplish this, the WES communicates with the needed resources to enable the collection and communication of information needed for the work effort.

What is an “Intelligent’ Forklift

Can a forklift be a “smart’ device in the warehouse?  Certainly.  Some forklifts, lift trucks, robots, autonomous vehicles and other warehouse equipment include sensors that connect to the Internet, enabling communication and sharing of data or are being designed to do so.  These Internet-enabled devices, commonly referred to as IoT include combine electronic objects and equipment with network connectivity to enable data collection and sharing.  Enabling devices and equipment which previously could not be connected to share data helps to revolutionize decision making, expedite operational processes and provide insight that can be useful in operations, asset management and preventative maintenance.  Using IoT in combination with forklifts can produce time savings and streamlined operations.

How Does an Intelligent Forklift Work?

It starts with the warehouse management software.  The WMS initiates a signal which travels to the intelligent forklift.  The signal instructs the forklift to travel to a specific picking location.  The intelligent forklift then receives a signal specifying the height of the stored pallet which needs to be retrieved.  With this information, the forklift self-adjusts as it traverses the warehouse to the appropriate location.

While in transit, the forklift operator can push a control console button to enable the forklift to travel at the highest safe speed to the destination.  This speed is typically much faster than that at which a forklift driver would drive.  Using an intelligent forklift in combination with a WMS enables the fork on the forklift to raise and lower itself more time efficiently. 

A WES operates in real time, enabling control of numerous elements of the production process including machinery and material handling as well as labor resources.  The WES reacts to changes in conditions dynamically.  If one business process is altered, the WES will automatically shift directions of the upstream or downstream business processes. 

Here are some of the most notable capabilities of a WES:

  • Provides nearly real time view of automation, labor and other critical inputs into warehousing operations
  • Optimizes DC and warehouse operations based on order priorities and labor resources
  • Synchronizes all material handling systems
  • Plans workload and balances the system
  • Enables dynamic order allocation and re-allocation as well as dynamic order release
  • Manages shipping
  • Manages and executes replenishment activities
  • Provides real time notifications regarding status of inventory, order allocation and automation equipment
  • Provides reporting and business intelligence on the warehouse execution level

WMS, WCS or WES-Which to Choose?

While it may seem like alphabet soup, the differences between the three warehousing software systems is substantial.  Of the three systems, the WMS is by far the most mature with approximately forty years of use in the supply chain industry.  Picking up where the WMS leaves off in warehouse operations, the WCS is designed to execute operations in an automated warehouse or distribution center environment.  The most recent innovation, the WES has become a hybrid and acts somewhat as both a “WCS on steroids” and also provides functionality conventionally handled by a WMS.

This has resulted in some WMS-WCS-WES market confusion.  Technology buyers are often unable to discern critical differences between the three systems well enough to compare them adequately.  When purchasing one or more of these three warehousing systems, it is important to consider your specific company needs as well as your overall technology investment strategy. 

  1. Is your company planning to replace your existing warehouse management software? If material handling equipment and a WCS or WES is already in place in your operation, determining a replacement for your WMS may prove confusing.  Although some WES vendors tout that it includes capabilities needed to replace that of a WMS, this is doubtful.  At this point, WCS and WES vendors have not established a track record of ongoing management and development long term for their products, as has WMS.  Buying a system on that claim may result in the purchase of a legacy system that either cannot be upgraded or only at a cumbersome cost.  Instead, many supply chain technology experts often advise companies to select an advanced WMS that has been purposely developed with an architecture designed to manage end-to-end warehouse processes, one with top notch flexibility that includes technology projected to last and be upgradable well into the future.
  2. Is your company simply replacing a legacy WMS and are not using material handling equipment? Are you currently servicing e-commerce with high order fulfillment requirements?  In this instance, if your company seeks to be competitive to win new e-commerce omnichannel fulfillment business, it may be advisable for you to evaluate material handling equipment and either a WCS or WES in addition to a WMS. While this may seem to be a costly investment, the purchase of new advanced technology can result in greater speed, accuracy, flexibility and scalability.  Having these technologies can make your business much more efficient, accurate and affordable for potential customers, giving you a leg up on winning and retaining business.

3. Is your company planning to implement both material handling equipment and a new WMS at the same time? If your company anticipates a simultaneous purchase, it may prove advantageous for you to purchase a WCS or WES from the same company from which you are purchasing the material handling equipment.

Whether you select an equipment manufacturer or system integrator, this would provide one point of accountability, limiting finger pointing if there are problems with implementation or execution.  In selecting a WCS or WES, the objective should be to alleviate some of the burden on the WMS, but not act as a substitute for a warehouse management system.

4. Is your company planning to implement only a material handling solution and WCS? If your organization does not plan to replace your WMS, it may prove advantageous for you to implement a leading-edge WES system instead of a WCS.  Selecting a warehouse execution system could enable you to enhance the capabilities of your warehouse management software, in other words, plug the gaps in functionality.


The differences between warehouse management software, warehouse control systems and warehouse execution systems may be confusing.  At this point in the evolution of the technologies, software vendors have increasingly added to the functionality of each type of system, creating hybrids that cross boundaries.


WMS – is the highest-level warehousing system and connects to an enterprise resource planning system (ERP). Used to manage inventory in warehouse and distribution center facilities, a WMS is typically viewed as the core system most integral to day-to-day operations of a warehousing operation.

WCS – connects material handling equipment and labor resources to accomplish establish objectives and handle prioritized work.

WES – synchronizes information and communications and organizes and synchronizes resources to execute needed processes.

Whether you select a WMS, WCS or WES or a combination of these technologies depends upon the type of warehouse or distribution center you operate, material handling solutions used, volume of transactions your company handles and other factors

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