BlueFountain Delivers a Modern Looking WMS for IBM i
July 30, 2013 Alex Woodie
Logistics companies that want to move beyond the green-screen experience with their warehouse management systems (WMS) may want to take a look at BlueFountain Technologies. The Alabama company says its RPG-based BlueFountain Logistics (BFL) package has a native Web interface that will make it easier to train the Facebook and Twitter generation to use and become proficient with the software.
As a programming and business consultant for supply chain technologies, BlueFountain Technologies co-founder Doug Ross has seen a lot of warehouses and a lot of WMS software. Many of these packages, such as the venerable PkMS from his former employer Manhattan Associates, were initially implemented on the IBM AS/400 platform, and later updated to run on i5/OS and then IBM i operating systems. While those WMS packages may run on the latest generation of Power Systems servers, their user interfaces are largely stuck in the green-screen world of the 1980s.
“We’ve gone into a lot of organizations that use green-screen WMS systems, and the workforce coming up is a lot of high school grads who think the green screen looks a little antiquated. They were used to using Facebook and Amazon and Google, and thought that the system looked old,” Ross tells IT Jungle.”We felt that the management team for most of these companies wanted to keep the AS/400 because it was stable, but wanted to do something to make their warehouse look a little more up to date. We thought what a great idea to take the AS/400, which was stable and reliable, and put a Web-based look to it.”
Ross and his colleagues working at DSR Consulting Services couldn’t find any software company selling an IBM i-based WMS package with a native Web interface (screen scraped interfaces don’t count), so they decided to build their own. The result is BFL, which was officially unveiled in 2011.
The GUI Generation
BFL gives distribution companies the best of both worlds: the stability of the IBM i server, and the ease of use of a Web interface. “Many of our competitors are selling software systems that are either green screens that run on the AS/400 or they’re trying to move away from the ‘400 and use a Windows server that also has some kind of Windows- or Web-enabled look,” Ross says. “We want to try and go for a niche that wants to stay with the ‘400 for stability, but also want new functionality where they could have something that didn’t look like the old green screen that so many warehouses are used to.”
BFL’s core application logic is coded in free format RPG, while the user interface is delivered using a combination of IBM CGIDev2 technology, JQuery, and AJAX technology, says BlueFountain Technologies programmer Andrew Stubbs.
The application supports all the needs of a warehouse. It includes inbound functionality such as receiving, returns, inventory management; outbound processes, such as picking and shipping; and just about everything in between, such as cycle counting and inventory checks. The software supports radio frequency (RF) guns and any mobile devices that support a modern Web browser.
The system has a built-in security model that restricts what users or groups of users see on their screens. Keeping the UI clear of clutter is an important deterrent to nosy users, Ross says. “One thing we noticed in other application was that the option is still out there in the green screen, and users want to know what it does and how it works even though they can’t necessarily get into it,” he says. “We just remove it completely, and that way you don’t know what you’re missing.”
On the Shoulders of Giants
There isn’t a whole lot of space to innovate in the WMS applications category. Many of the WMS apps on the market, including Manhattan Associates’ PkMS (now called Warehouse Management for IBM i) and the IBM i-based WMS from Red Prairie (now owned by JDA Software) offer a similar set of core capabilities, and BFL replicates the best of the features–except for the lack of a native Web interface of course.
“We didn’t set out to reinvent the wheel,” Ross says. “We felt there was some strong functionality out there. If you talk to most warehouse managers now, the basic and the backbone of their operations is going to be making sure the product is received in correctly, making sure there are checks and balances in place when it’s put away, and then when it s picked, the same thing–making sure you’ve got the right tools in place.”
The product is driven by dimensions. If a new product being introduced to the warehouse is 12 inches tall, but the first location chosen for that product has only 10 inches of space, the system will automatically go to the next location. “We really want to force our users to set up dimensions,” Ross says. “Location set up is very important to the system.”
Ross felt it was necessary to add some additional features to BFL that other WMS makers charge extra for, such as reporting. “Right now, if you want to see a report with many of [the competing WMS] systems, you have to buy a separate reporting tool and plug it in,” he says. “Ours has a built in reporting tool where you can see graphs on screen–pie graphs, line carts–and they come in color.”
The first BFL customer is in the pharmaceutical business, and BlueFountain has tailored the software to be able to handle many of the latest state and federal mandates governing the handling of controlled substances, including pedigree track and trace requirements, and monthly DEA reporting requirements. BFL also supports a new California requirement for serializing individual bottles and cases.
“There are a lot of new mandates coming out in distribution,” Ross says. “If you have an older software package that’s no longer supported, you need to either create the mandates yourself in the system, or you need someone like us to bring on a new software package along that already has it built in.”
BFL is highly customizable, enabling it to be used in industries besides pharmaceuticals. “Right now we have a lot of functionality that focuses mainly on the pharmaceutical industry. However, that being said, we’re also able to go with the retail market and food distribution. With all the flags and the configuration we have, we could be operating in any environment.”
As a new newcomer to the WMS application field, BlueFountain is currently focusing on smaller and midsize firms. That is mostly due to the company’s short list of customer wins, not by any limitation in the software. The BFL package can easily scale to handle any size operation, including running multiple warehouses within a single implementation, or even running the operations of multiple companies. And because it’s new and scrappy, BlueFountain is also charging less for its WMS package than its competitors charge for comparable functionality.
For more information, see the company’s website at www.bluefountaintech.com.