Warehouse Control System: What Is It and Why Invest in One

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The ecommerce supply chain relies on good warehouse management, so orders are quickly and accurately fulfilled.

To achieve this, inventory needs to consistently move through multiple warehousing processes until it’s finally ready to be shipped out to the customer.

To better oversee the flow of inventory and its associated activities, some businesses may use a warehouse control system (WCS) that works seamlessly with their existing warehouse management system (WMS).

Implementing a WCS might seem like a time-consuming and costly endeavor, but it’s not as complicated as you might think.

In this article, we break down what a warehouse control system is and how it’s used.

What is a warehouse control system (WCS)?

A warehouse control system is a software solution used for directing the flow of inventory within a warehouse or distribution center.

It helps to coordinate tasks between different subsystems, such as carousels, sorters, conveyors, and palletizers, so the flow of inventory runs smoothly, from stowing inventory to shipping.

Essentially, a WCS helps to optimize your warehousing operations and organize inventory until your products are ready to be shipped.

Why use a warehouse control system?

A WCS is a type of smart warehousing solution that helps ecommerce businesses keep their warehouse organized, while saving time and costs.

A WCS is particularly useful for businesses that have complex picking and loading requirements, which involves the use of high-tech equipment and machines.

Ecommerce businesses with highly automated warehouses also rely heavily on a WCS to optimize different activities, such as routing products.

Overall, a warehouse control system:

  • Ensures warehousing workflows and functions run smoothly from receiving, to fulfillment, to shipping
  • Provides increased visibility into day-to-day tasks across warehouse employees
  • Improves product routes and how tasks are assigned to available resources
  • Optimizes storage space and warehouse capacity for efficiency and cost savings

How does a WCS work?

A warehouse control system works by performing and supporting the following key functions:

  • Exchanges essential information with a higher-level software application such as a WMS, so material handling functions are automatically performed and the flow of products within the warehouse is tracked. 
  • Communicates in real-time with material handling equipment and subsystems, allowing them to coordinate all the activities and subsequent movements of automated equipment. 
  • Assigns cartons to divert them to the right locations.
  • Determines the most efficient route for products and then controls the direction of material handling equipment such as conveyors, sorters, carousels, and scales to ensure products are transported accordingly.
  • Uses data from system-level sensors and controllers to provide real-time monitoring and management of automated warehousing systems. This helps to improve efficiency and enables quick diagnostics in case something goes wrong or isn’t working. 

What are the pillars of a good WCS?

Whether you’re trying to implement a new WCS or optimize an existing one, it’s important to understand what makes a good WCS. Here are the four pillars a WCS should have, so you know what to look for and how to optimize your existing system.

A flexible interface

A good WCS should offer a flexible and user-friendly interface that you can seamlessly implement across multiple devices with minimal risks.

This includes having the ability to integrate with existing systems to minimize the risk of disruptions and disconnects between different warehousing activities.

A smooth integration will help to streamline and simplify your warehouse operations as it enables you to manage your inventory, warehouse labor, and equipment all in one place. 

Planning tools

A warehouse control system with good planning tools can make your operations much more efficient.

For example, you can use a material flow planning tool to visualize your material flow and simulate it, so all the material handling equipment is efficiently utilized and all the integrated subsystems are working together smoothly.

You can then use this to plan for an optimal material flow that enhances efficiency.

Additionally, a good WCS allows you to control the material flow based on different product characteristics. That way, you can intelligently group orders to make the retail fulfillment process as smooth as possible.

Automation control system

Since the goal of using a WCS is to save time and optimize your warehouse processes, automation should be central to the system.

A good WCS should automate tasks and easily integrate with your existing warehouse infrastructure, including equipment like conveyor control systems, sortation control systems, and automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS).

System visibility

One of the most critical components of a WCS is system visibility. You should have access to real-time monitoring and tracking so you can get transparency into the daily activities across your warehouse.

This will give you better control over your operations while ensuring enhanced compliance with industry standards and improved workload balance. 

You should also be able to set up exception alerts to immediately identify any issues and fix them before they turn into bigger ones. 

How does a WCS differ from WMS and WES?

During the process of setting up a robust warehousing operation, you may come across different SaaS WMS offerings designed to help you with warehouse management.

In addition to a warehouse control system, you may be looking at solutions such as a warehouse management system or a warehouse execution system (WES). Each solution serves a specific purpose and has a unique core function to improve your warehousing operations.   

So how does a WCS differ from these two? Let’s first take a look at the definition of each type of system to gain a better understanding of their differences.

What is a WMS?

A warehouse management system (WMS) is a warehouse technology that enhances inventory visibility and tracks activity within a warehouse.

A WMS functions across different warehousing processes, from warehouse receiving and inventory management, to fulfillment and shipping.

WMS platforms help businesses optimize their storage space, track and locate inventory quickly, stay on top of inventory replenishment, and even eliminate the need for manual inventory counts to avoid common inventory issues, such as stockouts, dead stock accumulation, and inventory discrepancies.

A WMS can integrate with enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. If you outsource fulfillment, many third-party logistics companies offer a WMS as part of their fulfillment service, using it in the fulfillment centers where your products are stored and fulfilled. This allows businesses that outsource to track warehouse activity without being involved in the day to day (or running a warehouse themselves).

Every WMS is different, but a basic WMS should come with the following capabilities:

What is a WES?

A warehouse execution system (WES) is a hybrid platform that combines some of the features of traditional WMS with the capabilities of a WCS.

A WES provides real-time inputs for coordinating work and equipment functions in a highly automated facility. WES platforms direct and manage the physical flow of goods throughout different warehousing functions — from warehouse receiving to shipping.

WES platforms typically focus more on goods-to-person technologies. They also involve semi-automated processes, where warehouse staff is involved.

A warehouse execution system generally comes with features such as automated picking management, replenishment management, and packing station management. 

What are the major differences between these systems?

Although the capabilities of these three systems sometimes overlap, there are a few key differences you should keep in mind, and they typically fall in this order of utilization as a business and warehouse grow in size.

A WMS is primarily responsible for managing your overall operations and the flow of inventory within the warehouse. It specializes in assigning and delegating tasks to warehouse workers and tracking orders from the moment they’re received until they’re shipped out.

Meanwhile, a WCS is specifically responsible for controlling the physical flow of inventory using material handling equipment and systems. It typically integrates with the WMS and becomes a part of it, while offering an additional layer of control over the movement of product.

On the other hand, a WES can be considered as a next-gen WCS since it essentially performs similar tasks but possesses some of the features of a WMS. It adds to the WCS by providing a higher level of warehouse management. 

Overall, a WES doesn’t have enough management features to entirely replace a WMS. Instead, it’s designed to work in alignment with your warehouse management system to perform the functions that your WMS doesn’t cover or can’t do well on its own.

How ShipBob can help you take warehouse management to the next level

ShipBob is a global leader in warehouse management, offering a best-in-class WMS for in-house fulfillment as well as fulfillment services, including an omnichannel fulfillment network and an advanced cloud-based fulfillment platform.

ShipBob’s fulfillment centers operate using a proprietary WMS, which gives ShipBob merchants full visibility into the fulfillment process and warehousing operations.

“With ShipBob, there are so many checks and balances, so we don’t screw up picking. It’s been great. We can track our inventory in real time now, knowing the number of units we have for each product and where they all are in our warehouse.”

Rick Corbridge, COO at Infuze Hydration

ShipBob’s fulfillment platform, which integrates with its WMS that can also be used as a standalone platform in a brand’s own warehouse, connects with multiple ecommerce platforms and sales channels, allowing you to start off small and expand into new markets with ease as your business grows.

Once you connect your store(s) to ShipBob’s platform, as soon as orders are placed, they’re sent to the closest ShipBob fulfillment center location to begin the process of picking, packing, and shipping.

By partnering with ShipBob, you save time and costs while improving fulfillment processes, so you can scale your operations and fulfill more orders.

“Prior to ShipBob, we’d ship 300 orders/day. On that first night, we shipped 700 orders in the same timeframe. That speed is so valuable and so seamless.”

Rick Corbridge, COO at Infuze Hydration

For in-house fulfillment, ShipBob’s full-stack fulfillment and warehouse management solution called Merchant Plus is designed for up-and-coming brands with their own warehouse. This solution eliminates the need to stitch multiple systems and platforms together and instead, lets you manage everything in one place. 

“Before ShipBob, we didn’t have everything centrally located. Now, from inventory to orders, we can track it all. Lot codes are extremely important for us, being in the food business, and other tools we used previously didn’t give us those capabilities.”

Jarod Steffes, CEO of Muddy Bites

To learn more about ShipBob’s omnichannel fulfillment solutions, contact our team today.

Warehouse control system FAQs

Here are answers to the top questions about warehouse control systems.

How does a warehouse control system work?

A warehouse control system works by integrating with a WMS to oversee all activity within a warehouse. It controls material handling equipment across different subsystems to ensure that they’re working together. 

What systems are used in a warehouse?

Warehouse management systems (WMS), warehouse control systems (WCS), and warehouse execution systems (WES) are common systems used in a large scale warehouse. The most common system used is a WMS, which both WCS and WES systems can integrate with as a business grows and has more complex warehousing needs and automation used.

What is the main objective of a warehouse control system?

The main objective of a warehouse control system is to ensure that the physical flow of goods is running smoothly by monitoring warehouse automation, including equipment and machines used to move inventory throughout different stages.

Written By:

Kristina is the Director of Marketing Communications at ShipBob, where she writes various articles, case studies, and other resources to help ecommerce brands grow their business.

Read all posts written by Kristina Lopienski