App Stores Come to the Supply Chain Execution (SCE) Market

HighJump Software, a leading Supply Chain Execution (SCE) software vendor and an ARC client, announced yesterday the launch of its “HighJump App Station,” where customers can browse supply chain workflows and add them to their warehouse management system (WMS) anytime, similar to the way iPhone users can download apps from Apple’s App Store. HighJump actually previewed the App Station at its user conference back in October, but with everything else going on at the show, I didn’t get a chance to write about it.

To put this announcement in perspective, let’s first step back and look at SCE software. Historically, warehouse and transportation management systems were one big piece of monolithic code. Over time, software vendors began to modularize these solutions. For example, as yard management functionality was written, instead of putting it in the core WMS code, software vendors created a separate module. For customers that did not want to immediately tackle yard processes, this simplified their implementation.

Meanwhile, single-instance, multi-tenant solutions emerged on the TMS side (aka software-as-a-service solutions). We’ve written about the advantages of this model in the past, so I won’t repeat myself here. All companies using a single-instance, multi-tenant solution are accessing the exact same software code. Whenever enhancements are made to the software, all users have access to it. In this model, there is no need for an app store.

However, the SaaS model is much more applicable to TMS than WMS. Virtually all WMS implementations, for warehouses of any size or complexity, have customer-specific code, which is often kept in a separate library so that upgrades will proceed more smoothly.

You might ask, why not have a single instance version of WMS? If there are customer-specific requirements, just add the functionality to the code base, especially if other customers might find it useful. The problem with that approach is that you would end up with a hugely bloated piece of software. The bigger the code base, the more monolithic the solution becomes, the longer implementations take, the more difficult testing becomes (flipping a switch to enable one piece of functionality could break a different piece), and the more difficult the upgrade process becomes.

In modern software architectures, we talk of modules, and now micro apps – applications with much less code than a module that are “loosely coupled” to the core solution. Loosely coupled modules break up the code base and keep the software from getting too bloated. For example, in a WMS that is “loosely coupled” with a yard module, the core WMS calls out to the separate solution environment, the yard module processes the operation, and then sends the results back to the WMS.

However, the idea that “loosely coupled” solutions are ideal can be taken too far. You could not build an effective WMS out of a bunch of modules and micro apps that were loosely coupled. There are large chunks of code that need to be “tightly coupled” to work well. In a WMS, the inventory model and all of the attributes associated with inventory need to be master data that applies to all processes. Similarly, the warehouse tasking logic needs to be a large chunk of tightly coupled code, otherwise you lose opportunities for labor synergies between the separate processes (receiving, put-away, picking, etc.).

So, with this background, we finally get to the beauty of micro apps. In WMS, I don’t believe single-instance, multi-tenant solutions will work for complex warehouses. Yet, you don’t want your WMS code base to get too bloated. These micro apps provide a way to further reduce the complexity of the solution by having only the functionality that is needed; they also speed implementations and upgrades, provide customer and industry-specific functionality, and expedite development cycles.

So, what is an example of a micro app? HighJump demonstrated an app that allows a forklift driver to perform required OSHA checks (e.g., test that the horn and brakes work) prior to driving the forklift. The driver’s RF terminal has a new screen that allows them to document that they have performed the check (Horn works? “Yes” is checked).

I can see many micro apps being developed to support front and back end processes in the warehouse (e.g., freight inspection at receiving, customer specific labeling at shipping), warehouse assets and maintenance, and warehouse human resource issues. I see micro apps being less applicable to the core put-away and picking processes. But all and all, HighJump’s App Station is a very interesting development and a step forward for the SCE solution marketplace.

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