Are manufacturing execution systems still relevant?

Manufacturing execution systems have long been the quiet workhorses. Now, they're breaking out beyond the four walls of the enterprise.

For nearly 30 years, manufacturing execution system (MES) software has been hard at work on discrete manufacturers' shop floors, gathering production data and allowing operators to adjust processes as needed in real time. The benefits, then and now, are well known: reduced waste, better quality, greater agility to respond to changes in demand, and improved uptime. As the technology ages, however, questions of MES' continued relevance have arisen for industry experts to ponder.

Greg Gorbach, vice president for information-driven manufacturing at ARC Advisory Group, believes that MES is still as relevant today as it was three decades ago. "Manufacturing is coming back in the U.S. We are seeing MES and MOM [manufacturing operations management] products growing as a result," he said.

Both MES and MOM aim to increase the throughput and quality of manufacturing processes. "No matter what you call it, these things are key to the new competitive paradigm," Gorbach explained. "This is about using information to drive performance inside and now, outside, the four walls of the enterprise."

Manufacturing execution systems across the enterprise

Manufacturing execution systems and their ilk are assuming prominent roles in digital manufacturing, in which data is shared digitally, with human intervention reduced to the lowest levels, according to Simon Jacobson, vice president of research for the supply chain at Gartner Inc.

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Wider uses of MES technology are becoming more common, Jacobson said. For example, a customer or trading partner might need production data for traceability. "Within the four walls, MES still delivers very tangible value. It helps reduce scrap, rework and repair," said he said. "But if you put in place a digitization of the process, you can enforce standard work" in an automated way that increases the potential benefits.

A 2013 Gartner survey showed most manufacturers are leveraging their MES data exclusively in-house, netting them 60% of the intended benefits. The value is not fully realized when confined to in-house use, but that doesn't mean companies are not reaping value from traditional MES uses, Jacobson clarified.

Key MES capabilities

According to industry experts, small and medium-sized manufacturers in the market for a MES system to help increase agility, reduce lead times and boost quality should look for these baseline capabilities:

  • Real-time visibility into work orders and priorities for optimal execution
  • Ability to deliver process information, including work instructions, process and quality specifications, to operators and equipment
  • Ability to automatically capture an accurate electronic production history
  • Ability to integrate with enterprise business systems, including ERP and product lifecycle management, enabling near-real-time visibility across the supply chain for better decision making

Manufacturing execution systems might seem like a routine, if somewhat boring, part of a manufacturer's bag of IT tricks. Not so, said Jacobson. In fact, MES is poised to take a more prominent role as manufacturing complexity increases.

"If you look at the increases in the number of product variants and SKUs, you are going to need a much more agile manufacturing scheme," said Jacobson. "We are seeing companies start to take this seriously. They can accelerate new product introduction, and increase quality and speed up the handoffs and get the feedback loop of how the process is performing, so the virtual design and the physical production are aligned."

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This was first published in February 2014

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