Warehouse Control System vs. Warehouse Management System: What’s the Difference?

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Distribution and fulfillment centers are often part of a complex network of logistics sites that move products throughout the United States and around the world. Each warehouse and third-party logistics provider (3PL) must identify the right mix of equipment, personnel, and systems to get the most productivity out of each location. The most common way to achieve a unified system is to create a control hierarchy that connects warehouse platforms such as warehouse management systems (WMS), warehouse control systems (WCS), and warehouse execution systems (WES).

In this post, we’ll introduce each of these software systems and discuss some important ways in which WMS and WCS platforms differ. As you explore these SaaS offerings, you will find that many have overlapping functions which can make it challenging to identify the right combination of technology for a particular operation. With an increased focus on automation and cloud-support, you will also find a high degree of customization and scalability which make WMS and WCS tools more accessible to smaller warehouses and rapidly growing businesses.

An Overview of Warehouse Systems

Warehouse workers using software

There are three major SaaS offerings in the warehouse space that are used for the management of orders, equipment, and personnel. Each type of platform has a specific core function, and some warehouse managers may find that a single system can handle all of their needs, while in other cases a combination of tools may work best. These are the major platforms and some of their key features.

Warehouse Management System (WMS)

WMS platforms have been around for decades and are more mature and developed than WCS and WES systems. A WMS is responsible for managing inventory flow control across any number of distribution sites and warehouses. It is often integrated with Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) for coordinating inventory management at a corporate level. Additional key capabilities of a WMS include:

  • Verifying receipts
  • Inventory replenishment
  • Completing cycle counts
  • Creating packing slips
  • ERP integration
  • Slotting
  • Shipment management

Warehouse Control System (WCS)

While a WMS can be used across different locations, a WCS is configured for a single warehouse. The main purpose of the software is to manage automated equipment on the warehouse floor including conveyors, sorters, packers, carousels, and robotic systems. This is done by interfacing with programmable logic controllers (PLCs) throughout the facility and managing the flow of inventory. Additional features of a WCS include:

  • Scanner integration
  • Real-time data visibility
  • Machine control
  • In-line weight and motion detection

Warehouse Execution System (WES). The WES is a relatively new offering in the market that tries to combine some features of WMS and WCS software into a single, hybrid platform. One of the main differentiators for WES systems is the focus on goods-to-person technologies and the management of semi-automated processes that involve warehouse personnel. Some of the important features include:

  • Replenishment management
  • Pick management
  • Pack sorter management

All three of these types of platforms work with inventory tracking tools such as warehouse rack labels, including cold storage rack labels and placards, floor labels, hanging warehouse signs such as long-range retro-reflective warehouse signs, container, tote, and tray barcode labels, pallet barcode labels, and barcode scanning equipment. Some software solutions offer companion mobile applications for barcode scanning, inventory management, and other capabilities. Be sure to look into compatibility to ensure that any software application or platform integrates seamlessly with any existing tools and technologies you’re using.

WMS vs WCS: Operational Complexity

Warehouse manager using warehouse management or warehouse control system

One of the primary differences between WMS and WCS systems is their ability to handle multiple locations. Having been designed at the enterprise level, most WMS offerings are capable of supporting multiple locations and different operational needs across sites, including 3PL providers. They can maintain visibility at a very high level, but data often lags as a result in comparison to the real-time equipment and operational data that a WCS system can provide. For very complex warehouse operations, a WCS system can enable better controls at a site level, and many warehouse managers utilize both a WCS and WMS as a result.

WMS vs WCS: Level of Automation

As mentioned above, a WCS is often integrated with a WMS to combine excellent warehouse site management with corporate-level controls for inventory and order flow. If a warehouse uses a large number of automated devices and a complex rack design, a WCS is the best way to coordinate and manage the local equipment. A WMS system does not manage equipment, which is a key gap that WCS software has filled in today’s modern warehouses.

WMS vs. WCS: Customization and Future Needs

While a WMS often comes with a more comprehensive set of capabilities than either a WCS or WES, this can also make the WMS platform more rigid and difficult to customize and scale. Before choosing any combination of warehouse management software, it is always important to consider the current and future needs for both the warehouse and the larger organization and network of logistics partners it supports. For smaller operations, it may also be possible to create a very lean deployment where a WCS or WES alone is sufficient for moving products, pallets, and totes through the facility.

As with most types of software, there is no clear choice for warehouse optimization that will meet all the requirements for every organization. Yet with a careful review of inventory management, data tracking, and automation needs, it is possible to develop a winning plan for any warehouse. Both warehouse management systems and warehouse control systems have proven their value for operations worldwide, and we will certainly see more innovation and exciting new features in this space.