Warehouse and supply chain management in the new normal

Following the unveiling of Manhattan Associates’ Manhattan Active Warehouse Management solution at the company’s recent online Momentum Connect customer conference, Retail Technology Review spoke with the company’s UK managing director, Craig Summers, about the current warehousing and supply chain landscape – including the rise of omnichannel and the unprecedented challenges of the coronavirus pandemic – and how the company’s new offering has been designed to meet these types of challenges head on.

Craig Summers: Providing the right solution for changing times. 

Over the past few months, what has been reaffirmed is that the efficiency of supply chains is absolutely critical in today’s fast-changing and sometimes highly unpredictable world. People working in warehouses and DCs or delivering to end-customers’ front doors cannot work from home despite the current worldwide pandemic, so efficiency becomes even more important when things need to be done in different ways. As Craig Summers, UK managing director of Manhattan Associates, says, we are currently having to adapt to scenarios we might never have even anticipated. He adds that we also need to be able to use our resources in a different way, which can put a considerable amount of pressure on many companies. Then, on top of that, in the early days of the pandemic managing stock and forecasting of essentials – particularly around groceries and medical supplies – became incredibly important. “Who would have thought toilet rolls would have become a worldwide talking point?” says Summers. “So, from a supply chain perspective, pressure on being more efficient is greater than ever, and omnichannel becomes even more important because if people are isolating and can't go out to brick and mortar stores to the extent they did before the pandemic struck their only way of ordering is through other channels – typically online. This naturally can result in significant increases in demand, which again puts added pressure on the supply chain.” 

Summers also makes the point that if a company’s goods are not perishable then another challenge it has is how to sell stock sitting in physical stores while the stores are closed. “So, these companies need systems that make it easier for them to sell online in the absence of an available open brick and mortar store,” he says. “Many companies are still working with systems that are a number of years old, a traditional heavy-duty enterprise system for example. It may sit in an internal data centre or possibly outsourced data centre and it might only be upgraded every 5 or even 10 years because upgrades on these systems can be quite major and often disruptive projects. This can hamper people's ability to be agile because if you're stuck with a system that was a good fit for your business say 5 years ago then I would probably wager it's not going to be a good fit for your business today.” 

Another major supply chain-related trend is the growing emergence of robots in the warehouse and DC environment. “There's been automation in warehouses and DCs for many years to improve warehousing and supply chain agility, and as a continuation of this trend we are now seeing an increased use of co-bots,” says Summers. “These can be put in quite quickly compared with traditional big material handling equipment and I think this is a natural evolution towards greater levels of automating in a more efficient way.” Summers believes this drive for progress goes right back to the invention of the wheel or flints – the desire for greater convenience and efficiency – people and equipment working in harmony. 

Manhattan Active Warehouse Management

So, how does Manhattan Associates’ latest offering Manhattan Active Warehouse Management offer a means to meet the above types of challenges and deliver tangible benefits for customers? “Manhattan Associates doesn’t try to do everything,” explains Summers. “We aspire to be the best at what we do. Maybe that’s why for 12 years now we have been positioned in the top right-hand corner of Gartner's Magic Quadrant for warehouse management.” He adds that Manhattan Associates also has many loyal customers who have been with the company for several years. “Many customers choose us because of our level of investment in R&D,” he says. “Now, with the launch of Manhattan Active Warehouse Management, things have been taken to a whole new level. It is the world’s first cloud-native enterprise-class WMS that unifies every aspect of distribution and never needs upgrading. So, it is versionless, highly adaptable and flexible. It also has rich machine-learning capability built in. If you take an on-premise application with its monolithic coding approach and put that in a virtual data centre – i.e. the cloud – this may help to some extent, but it doesn't provide this concept of versionless. In the world we live in today we are used to using smartphones and much of the time we probably don't know what version of an app we are currently using – we just update them when prompted. In an enterprise environment things are much more complicated, of course, because you can't risk compromising your whole operation, so with our new cloud-native application when you update you are not updating a monolithic system, you're updating at the right time and making sure it works with all the other components as well. This is much easier to do when it's broken down into a user-friendly, modular, componentised form.” 

Summers comments that this approach allows Manhattan Associates to provide updates to customers on a quarterly basis. “We could do it more often but quarterly seems the right sort of timing,” he reflects. “We can also respond really quickly to required changes and trends. Who would have anticipated the current pandemic scenario and how companies are forced to re-think how they run their warehouses and DCs, and how they sell their goods through the supply chain? So, we know as a business we can start bringing in new functionality four times a year in a far more agile way. Then, we can bring the significant R&D investment we make to our customers almost immediately. In the past they might have had to wait a couple of years before they could upgrade. We can also react to particular customers’ precise functionality needs much quicker, For example, mainly due to the COVID-19 situation, one customer in the US, Kendra Scott – the jewellery, home decor, gifts and beauty company – wanted to be able to do curb-side pick-up, so we were able to work with the company very quickly and deliver something to enable this in an efficient manner.” 

In terms of the people who use this type of technology, Summers believes we must not forget that most people working in warehouses are used to using technology such as smartphones in their social lives, for entertainment and as consumers. “However, quite often they will go into work and be using something clunky, quite old and hard to use,” he says. “So, we find that users really like the way we put our technology onto devices with the latest generation of android and iOS devices. This helps users feel much more engaged. They are not just looking at a green screen with lines of text, but rather they are using something that is more user-friendly, so they can see more easily where they are in their work cycle and even how they could improve their daily routine. People can’t ignore that we are now living in a data-driven, connected world and we really don't want to miss out on the benefits this can offer.” 

Working closely with customers 

Summers adds that Manhattan Associates has always been keen to learn from and be influenced by its customers to provide the best solutions for their warehousing and supply chain requirements. As part of this customer-focused strategy, he explains that Manhattan Associates has User Groups (called Product Councils in the US). These offer the opportunity for customers to gather, discuss best practice, share their experiences and align on priorities for what’s next. Manhattan Associates invites customers to host and chair the meeting, and to drive the agenda, Manhattan Associates personnel then join the meeting and respond as appropriate. The company uses these meetings as an opportunity to share information and to make better product decisions moving forward. Manhattan Associates has active groups for its WMS solutions (WMOS, SCALE & WMI) as well as its Omni Solutions. “Our customers are invested in us and so it's our duty to make sure we are listening,” says Summers. 

Cloud-first policy 

Summers considers why many customers are already keen to move to Manhattan Active Warehouse Management. “A lot of companies are adopting a cloud-first policy because they realise that owning their own hardware and all of the resources that go with it is not core to their business,” he says. “Also, if you then think about in-store type capability the less in-store type hardware you need the more it can come in through a cloud device. This can also result in less need for support. Additionally, what many customers like to be able to do is size their hardware for, say, the one day a year when they are at their peak. And that day’s peak might only be for couple of hours, but everything needs to be sized to be able to cope with that most critical time. When you have something built on cloud architecture in such a way that it can scale up very quickly to these types of requirements as and when required the demand and supply issue is no longer such a worry for companies. Indeed, through the pandemic we have seen some customers running efficiently at Black Friday levels of demand more regularly.” 

Beyond beta

Summers explains that, unusually for the lead-up to a new solution launch, Manhattan Associates invited a company to go live with the solution prior to its official launch rather than go down the more traditional beta testing route. “The company, Pet Supplies Plus, is a long-term Manhattan customer and was looking for an upgrade,” Summers points out. “The timing seemed perfect to us so we enquired whether it would like to be the first customer for Manhattan Active Warehouse Management. Pet Supplies Plus says it trusted our cloud-native Manhattan Active Warehouse Management because it’s the only WMS that can deliver the agility, scalability and ground-breaking innovation it needs as a platform for success.” Miles Tedder, chief operating officer of Pet Supplies Plus, says: “Manhattan Active Warehouse Management gives us a distribution solution that adapts as quickly as our customers’ needs, with frequent and easy access to the latest technologies and new features. This solution takes care of all of the system and software maintenance, allowing us to focus all our energies on serving our customers.” 

Summers concludes: “There is always a level of risk when you go out there and change what you've had in place for 30 years or so. But I think there is a certain responsibility as a market leader to be brave and do that if it is going to serve your customers even better.”

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