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AI Brings Rx to the Warehouse

Distribution Solutions

Warehouse management software makers say new systems help you do more with less.

by Kim Phelan

Serious warehouse challenges confront North American industrial distributors in 2024, but advancements in technology and automation, including AI, have soared over the past year, giving distribution an array of available solutions through warehouse management systems (WMS).

Attracting and keeping skilled workers leads the pack of problems plaguing the industry, but a host of other issues are at the forefront of management minds, including:

  • How to accurately predict product demand to optimize inventory levels and reduce costs.
  • How to efficiently manage stock to meet customer demands without overstocking.
  • How to streamline operations to minimize waste and improve workflow.
  • How to enhance worker productivity through training, technology, and process improvements.

“These challenges are compounded by market trends and internal issues that threaten revenue growth and profitability, such as manufacturers building direct relationships with end customers, digital disruption, and pressure from fast-moving digital players offering more price transparency and customer convenience,” said Infor Industry Principal Sales Director Will Quinn. “Additionally, geopolitical tensions, inflation, and supply chain issues will likely persist, affecting the distribution industry.”


Infor’s industry-specific solutions can help address the challenges faced by industrial distribution companies in several ways, Quinn added. For supply planning, Infor offers customizable supply planning solutions that streamline tactical, strategic, and operational planning processes, helping organizations meet business requirements like multi-site planning, balancing product mix, demand planning, and reducing shelf-life constraints. Infor’s dynamic demand management feature uses AI and machine learning to predict and fulfill demand based on real-time data and advanced data science, aiding demand forecasting, financial and assortment planning, lifecycle pricing, and replenishment optimization. Also, Infor WMS combines 3D visual analysis and embedded labor management to reduce complexity and enhance operations. It improves productivity and order accuracy with B2B and B2C fulfillment support and labor management. And finally, Infor ERP helps control costs by improving supply chain visibility, increasing forecasting accuracy, and simplifying transparent communication with suppliers.

“Infor AI is a sophisticated platform tailored for the distribution industry, designed to enhance decisionmaking and operational efficiency,” Quinn said. “It operates beneath the surface of applications, utilizing powerful machine learning to mine data and improve processes such as inventory management, transportation routing, and predictive maintenance. Coleman AI provides AI-driven recommendations and advice, helping users make smarter business decisions swiftly.

“Infor’s comprehensive suite of solutions is designed to address the specific needs of the distribution industry, providing the tools necessary to overcome the challenges of finding and retaining talent, demand forecasting, inventory management, and more. By leveraging Infor’s industry-specific solutions built for the cloud, companies can save money, improve security, and uptime, and enable scalability.”


In addition to labor shortages, rising operating costs and ongoing shipping issues and constraints present significant challenges to industrial distribution companies, says David Mascitto, senior manager, product marketing at Tecsys.


“Added to that, there is a growing need to retool the warehouses to keep up with business demands,” he said. “It’s about gaining efficiencies to allow warehouses to do more with what they have, all while staying agile to be able to adapt to changes in customer and business requirements at a pace never seen before.”

Tecsys’ Elite WMS is built on the Itopia low-code application platform, which provides warehouse leaders with the ability to personalize the system to their needs, without code modifications or development. Customization includes adding new tables and expression columns, modifying existing columns, adding business rules to change functionality, integrations to other systems, automating actions, adding timers and creating personalized dashboards. This extends even to the RF scanner used in the warehouse, where Itopia allows for graphics to be customized to the specific user based on their experience, proficiency, role or personal preference providing the picker with a highly-personalized user experience.

“Supply chains are more fluid than ever before,” Mascitto said, “and supply chain leaders need the ability to adapt quickly. Tecsys’ Elite WMS and Itopia low-code application platform provide warehouse leaders the agility to sync their technology to their operations, not the other way around.”


With continuously growing volumes and increasing customer expectations, not being able to fill all ranks in the workforce means distributors must find ways to do even more with even less than before, he says. This is going to help distributor employees and management shift their perception of automation and AI from being a threat to job security to serving a collaborative, supportive role in the warehouse.

To address the myriad challenges, SAP Extended Warehouse Management (SAP EWM) is now combined with SAP Warehouse Robotics, helping to automate warehouse operations with quick onboarding of robots from multiple vendors for optimal decision making and efficient task orchestration. Combined with SAP Warehouse Insights, it helps visualize, analyze, simulate, and optimize warehouse operations. SAP’s Advanced Shipping and Receiving (ASR) is new this year as well, extending capabilities in SAP EWM with SAP Transportation Management and SAP Business Network for Logistics to provide a platform for companies to collaborate with their logistics partners to gain end-to-end visibility and insights across their logistics operations.

“With ASR we have simplified and strengthened the link between Warehouse Management and Transportation Management,” said Werner Baumbach, head of strategic customer engagement, wholesale distribution, at SAP. “When companies venture into new areas or expand their current operations, it results not only in increased volume but also additional process requirements.”


Baumbach described an innovative strategy applied by German wholesaler and screw specialist WÜRTH, which was running out of space and struggling to hire the right employees at some of their sales facilities. Together with SAP and tecnology provider Knapp, they tested a new concept, installing a self-service terminal in one of their branches that is attached to a highly-automated mini-warehouse in a small part of that branch. Customers can now use a terminal to place their order, robots pick the relevant packages in Knapp’s automated warehouse and drop them at a pick-up point. In addition to time savings and increased convenience for customers, WÜRTH realized time and resource savings itself.

“SAP has embedded AI throughout our solutions, which we refer to as ‘Business AI’ to differentiate it from ‘Generative AI’ tools like Chat GPT,” said Baumbach. “Current capabilities include: intelligent invoice conversion, predictive replenishment, inventory optimization, guided selling (personalized recommendations), intelligent sales execution, and predictive analytics.”


VAI has developed a warehouse management solution that leverages mobile devices that are designed to make transaction processing in a warehouse lighter, easier, and faster than ever, according Joe Scioscia, executive vice president. By leveraging the enhanced touchscreen display on the mobile device, data can be presented in a clear, concise, easy-to-read format that reduces training time and speeds up operations.


“Most people know how to use a mobile device,” he said, “so this allows companies to bring warehouse employees up to speed faster, and quickly train seasonal workers when needed. The technology also drives efficiency, allowing companies to process more transactions with fewer people.

Like other software providers, he affirmed that analytics and AI are playing a significant role in warehouse management, today.

“A poorly configured warehouse can slow throughput and lead to shipping errors,” said Scioscia. “AI can review product movement and make recommendations for optimal product placement so that warehouses can utilize their floor and vertical space better to optimize efficiencies and increase throughput.”

Beyond efficiency, warehouse automation has been a substantial enabler of worker health and safety in the warehouse, he contends. VAI’s WMS deals with integrating warehouse automation systems like conveyors and robotics that assist in increased productivity and worker safety by not requiring workers to enter situations where their safety could be compromised.


Many distributors lack the internal resources and expertise to tailor asset management solutions to their specific needs, says Kyle Guin, co-founder of VastVision. This inability to embrace new technologies can create a lack of transparency, insufficient data for informed decision-making, and limited automation in operations.


“VastVision is on a mission to make advanced technologies accessible to small and medium-sized businesses,” he said. “Our user-friendly application empowers users to tailor the platform to their specific operational needs, avoiding the need for massive operational changes.

“We’ve simplified the deployment of UHF RFID technology and have plans to expand to other tracking technologies like low-energy Bluetooth and GPS, offering businesses real-time asset transparency and automation, reducing human error,” Guin said. “This wealth of real-time data is harnessed by our AI, providing businesses with a new generation of capabilities for asset management.

“The AI continuously monitors operations, identifying trends, making projections, generating advanced reports, flagging anomalies, uncovering inefficiencies, and offering a range of capabilities previously inaccessible to small and medium-sized businesses.”


In the present consumer-centric era, solutions need to provide new levels of fulfillment speed, agility, responsiveness, and risk mitigation, says James Ward, senior pre-sales director at Blue Yonder.

“Supporting multi-channel requirements necessitates that warehouse operations be customer-centric and able to handle orders and fulfillments in a much more granular way,” he said. “Blue Yonder’s Warehouse Management empowers businesses to deliver consistently high service at a value-driven cost delivered through a cloud-enabled, scalable, and seamless solution built for the connected world.”


Blue Yonder’s Luminate platform enables distributors to leverage industry-leading AI and machine learning capabilities, workflow-driven user experiences, and realtime connections to help predict, prevent, and resolve disruptions across the entire business. A few of its numerous features include: (1) Yard Management, a modern, innovative approach to solving the point of value leakage situation in a warehouse yard. It interprets the physical world directly, not relying on third-party signals or imprecise technology. (2) Warehouse Execution System (WES) provides plug-and-play automation APIs, purpose-built to work with specific workflows and validated vendor by vendor, to ensure contract-driven interoperability with a growing number of automation vendors. (3) Allocation Service is a cloud-native engine to elastically allocate with volumes, ensuring operational resilience in times of peak volume.


What can distributors look forward to seeing in the WMS market over the next 12-24 months?

Quinn at Infor: (1) More focus on cloud-native and SaaS solutions, such as Zero Downtime Upgrades for uninterrupted service. Infor’s Copilot AI and data streaming/lake capabilities will provide greater visibility and insights. (2) Tighter automation integration and hybrid solutions like Infor OS Cloud connecting with onpremise WMS. These will maximize existing investments while enabling scalability. (3) Further AI and machine learning integration for optimization. Infor WMS portals will also improve appointments, inventory visibility, and 3PL collaboration. It will enhance workforce tools via mobile devices and more unified warehouse visibility across equipment, orders, inventory, and other operations in real time.

Mascitto at Tecsys: Heavier focus on interoperability. It is one thing to have a conveyor system running in your warehouse and getting it to work efficiently, but the real challenge arises when multiple systems, such as carousels, pick walls, and maybe some AMRs are integrated. How do these systems all work together and talk to each other? WMS technology in the future will need to be able to bring disparate systems together and do it at scale for a variety of warehouse sizes and budgets.

Scioscia at VAI: Robotics use will continue to grow in the warehouse space. Warehouse robots can travel through the warehouse faster than human workers and choose more efficient routes, allowing them to fulfill orders faster. Robots use computer vision systems combined with conveyor belts and mechanized arms to identify products and route them to the proper bins and warehouse slots. Robots can help companies reduce delivery times and can transport heavy and bulky loads without the risk of injury.

Baumbach at SAP: The big trend we are seeing emerge is digital logistics convergence. All the pieces along the process chain need to fit nicely together, allowing optimization in an end-to-end approach. Decision support and exceptional handling with new levels of (artificially) intelligent insights will assist employees in reacting faster and in a more targeted way to unexpected situations. AI capabilities will deliver a natural-style communication with solutions alleviating the need for weeks of training to learn commands, screens, and reports. And sustainability, with regulatory punch, is entering virtually all departments.

Guin at VastVision: A surge in automation technology and AI adoption, manifested in both software solutions and robotics – with increasing accessibility to smaller businesses. A new endeavor: SAP has partnered with Sandia National Laboratories to develop groundbreaking passive tracking technology that utilizes Magnetoelastic-based tags to monitor factors like temperature, humidity, and specific gasses. It enhances the operational efficiency of existing technologies with the capability to read tags through substantial obstacles like a quarter-inch of steel. The goal is to initiate pilot programs within the next 12-24 months, marking a significant step toward revolutionizing asset tracking.

Ward at Blue Yonder: More real-life use cases with automation and AI to truly leverage the technology. Advancements in task interleaving/tour building and ML-driven predictive analytics in WES is a good example of how to ensure optimal resource utilization and reduce manual intervention by leveraging ML goal-times. All of this is to streamline our customer’s understanding of their supply chain and improve their organization’s agility and business velocity.


When considering Warehouse Management Systems (WMS) for employees in your company, several essential factors come into play, says Infor’s Will Quin:

  • Understanding the System: Including the benefits of WMS, such as visibility of inventory, storage capabilities, product/material expiry dates, sales, and customer service.
  • Training and Support: Training all employees and providing ongoing support is vital for successful WMS implementation. This ensures that users can effectively utilize the system and adapt to changes or updates.
  • User-Friendly Interface: A user-friendly interface that meets the user’s specific needs is crucial.
  • Performance Monitoring: Regular monitoring and analysis of WMS performance can help identify areas for improvement. Key indicators such as inventory and order accuracy and fulfillment times should be tracked and documented.
  • Labor Productivity: WMS solutions can determine the best employee for the job by considering factors such as skill level, proximity, and current tasks.

Quinn says Infor’s approach to user-friendly WMS offers several features all end users in the company will appreciate:

  • Seamless Automation Integration: Infor orchestrates man and machine “cooperability.”
  • Easy ERP Integration: Out-of-the-box functionality accelerates implementation.
  • Personalized User Experience: Infor allows interface customization to meet user needs. This includes multi-language support, home pages with alerts and collaboration, RF screens that show visible fields, flow, and color, and the ability to tailor existing reports.
  • Visualization: Infor provides a 3D visual warehouse for insight into bottlenecks and assets.
  • Continuous Innovation: Infor offers version-less cloud updates that require no upgrades ever.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Industrial Supply magazine. Copyright 2024, Direct Business Media.

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