Manufacturing execution systems (MES) are helping manufacturers bridge the gaps between the shop floor, the supply chain and the ERP system. By doing this, these systems are giving manufacturers more visibility and the control they need to make their production processes more efficient.
Most manufacturers implement manufacturing execution system (MES) software within their own plants to cut production costs and cope with regulatory requirements for traceability. But MES technology holds even greater potential when it's used to connect the extended supply chain. By integrating their MES with the systems of their largest customers and suppliers, a manufacturer will achieve greater supply chain agility, said Andrew Hughes, research director, manufacturing, at Gartner. In fact, according to Hughes, having the best overall supply chain may soon become the dominant factor in a manufacturer's success.
Say that a company receives a change order request from its best customer asking for 200 widgets rather than the usual 100. A supply chain manager's immediate questions are, "Can we do it? Do I have the capability to promise this order?"
"To answer this, I have to have visibility into my supply chain capability," Hughes said. In other words, manufacturers need a view into real-time production capacity, as opposed to what is being held in stock.
MES will provide the visibility within a manufacturer's own plant that's needed for capable-to-promise functionality. But if that manufacturer integrated its MES system with its customer's systems, the customer would be able to find that out directly without having to wait for an answer.
Integrating MES with the supply chain
However, integrating a manufacturing execution system with the MES of a partner, supplier or customer is no tsimple task. Because of the complexity of real-time shop floor systems, this type of project is strictly for companies that have significant integration experience.
Hughes referenced a Canadian automotive paint manufacturer that pulled off an impressive integration feat with its largest customer, a Detroit auto maker. "[The paint company] was using its MES to pass batch information to the car maker's paint shop to give them better information about the batch of paint, things like viscosity and other qualities. They were feeding that information right into the OEM's paint shop robot on the factory floor," Hughes said.
Integrating MES with the supply chain is a major undertaking, according to Daniel Miklovic, Gartner Research vice president for manufacturing. "This is not a silver bullet for the supply chain," he said.
Open standards makes MES integation task easier
But the task is considerably easier if your MES is open and connectable based on a standard such as .NET, Microsoft BizTalk or an XML variant. Newer tools based on a service-oriented architecture (SOA) are expected to facilitate broader MES integration within the supply chain.
"If you have an open and secure MES system, you can give your customer visibility and access," said Miklovic. "If they have production schedule changes, they can automatically send those to your MES rather than going through your ERP [system]."
Security still critical issue
Security is paramount when sharing production data outside the enterprise. "You don't want your customer to see what you are producing in your factory for their competitor," Miklovic said. "They should only be able to access information related to their specific order."
Smaller manufacturers should proceed with caution when selecting an MES if they intend to integrate with their supply chain. Vendors that cater to smaller companies may not offer the robustness of communication or security afforded by market leaders such as Siemens or GE Fanuc.
About the author: Lauren Gibbons Paul writes often on manufacturing technology issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.