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A Brief History of WMS in the Supply Chain

The development and history of warehouse management systems (WMSs) have had a profound impact on how the supply chain functions. However, few understand the history of WMS and how it evolved to encompass item tracking, storage data, inbound and outbound shipping, picking and much more. Rather than trying to look at every small detail that led up to the modern WMS, let’s take a look at some of the most notable advancements in its history.

Ancient Times Through Colonization: Warehouse Management Dates to Ancient Times

The concept of warehouse management originated in ancient Egypt as people sought ways to manage grain gathered from crops. In fact, their development meant keeping records of grain on papyrus to prevent famine in times of drought. As the world moved forward, the basic concept of managing warehouse inventory did not change much.

The 19th Century: The Railroad Becomes a Major Player in Transporting Goods

During the 19th century, the use of railroads to transport goods long distances had increased. Railroad companies often had monopolies on both the storage and shipping of such goods. All hauling and lifting after arriving a railroad’s terminal were completed by hand as well.

The 1900s to Late 1930s: World War I Witnesses the Introduction of Hand Trucks for Moving Materials and Managing Inventory

As World War I ended, the use of hand trucks had made moving products easier. However, products were often left Uncategorized and susceptible to inaccurate deliveries. Products would be stacked up to 12-feet high, but this left little room for the varying product in each stack, and exact inventory counts were difficult to track.

1939 to Early 1970s: Fork Lifts and Wooden Pallets Make Inventory Management Easier Through Bulk Cataloging, and Computers Enter Warehouse Management

During World War II, the development of forklifts and wooden pallets made managing individual pieces of inventory obsolete, and warehouses focused on pallet numbers for inventory tracking. With the rise of computers, automated storage and retrieval systems (AR/RS) were being deployed to move storage of pallets higher in the facility, and computers could generate broad reports of inventory levels.

The 1980s to 1990s: AS/RS Becomes Obsolete, Replaced by a Shift to Managing Inventory in Smaller Batches

In the 1980s, the use of AS/RS declined as excess inventory drove storage costs higher. Nearing the 1990s, companies began focusing on reducing inventory and gaining control over individual movements in facilities. This was powered by database-driven systems that updated inventory counts at set intervals, giving rise to just-in-time delivery.

The 2000s to 2006: Warehouses Become More Advanced, Relying on Evolving Technology to Meet Increased Demand and Avoid Overstocking

Databases grew dramatically between the late 1990s and early 2000s. Computers were gaining speed, and robotic systems were already being used by the auto industry. However, the increasing advances meant that another type of technology would be needed to manage growing storage footprints.

2006 – Present: Cloud-Computing Overhauls Traditional Warehouse Management Further, Continuing the Process Through the Internet of Things (IoT)

Enter the Amazon Elastic Computer Cloud. This was the first introduction of cloud-computing power on a broad scale. By 2008, Microsoft Azure reached the stage, and within a few short years, major companies, ranging from IBM to Rackspace Hosting, began offering off-site storage at costs that rival on-site document storage. As a result, software companies moved operations to the cloud, giving birth to Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) platforms that could manage WMS from anywhere with internet access.

What’s Next?

Only time will tell how much WMSs advance in the coming years. However, if history is any indicator of future growth, the next few years will see dramatic changes in how warehouses manage inventory and avoid the pitfalls of excess inventory and meet the demands of real-time order fulfillment and delivery.