Best practices for MES software selection and implementation

Before moving forward with your MES implementation, be sure you've identified your business goals and expectations for your MES software. Check out some best practices for building a business case, selecting software and implementing MES.

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A manufacturing execution system (MES) has a lot to offer small and midsized manufacturers by way of increased throughput, reduced scrap and rework, lower costs, and better alignment with customer needs.

Before getting started with an MES project, however, manufacturers need to make sure that they absolutely need an MES, and that the the MES software they're about to select meets their business needs.

As an enterprise application, MES requires a significant investment of time and money, although it's not in the ballpark of a full-blown ERP initiative. Some observers estimate the cost of an MES implementation at 20% of a major ERP project.

Discuss with the team why you are thinking of making this investment in MES. "You have to have a joint mindset of why you're doing this," said Maryanne Steidinger, operations management MES/EMI marketing manager for the MES package Invensys Wonderware. "You have to have a problem statement that everyone agrees on." This will help avoid issues related to user acceptance down the line.

Problem statements for why the company is implementing MES could include issues with quality, plant floor equipment being down frequently to continually losing track of work in process. Once the group settles on one or two of these, it is a good time to engage a consultant or systems integrator to help scope out a solution.

Building a business case for MES implementation

Few SMBs place as much emphasis on preparing a formal business plan prior to an implementation as enterprises. But it is still a good idea to put together a business case with expected payback and return on investment to ensure the project yields the expected benefits.

That said, it is tough to base a business case for MES exclusively on hard benefits such as specific cost savings or reduced headcount. "Make your best attempt to account for soft benefits," advises Simon Jacobson, research director, AMR Research. "[Post-implementation] you will have some unanticipated hard benefits. But the bigger piece is the soft benefits like productivity improvements and better customer satisfaction."

Selecting an MES vendor

Demand for MES systems has undergone a resurgence, particularly among manufacturers with multiple sites. One key factor in selecting an MES vendor is finding one that focuses on your particular industry and that targets manufacturers of your size.

Start by doing some research on your own, via the Web and organizations such as the MES Association (MESA), which offers resources to help with software selection. Then, if you have not already done so, bring in a consultant with MES experience who is accustomed to working with companies of your size. This should be your go-to person for expressing your needs to potential vendors. Interview several MES vendors and put them to the test, advises Scott Whitlock, president of Flexware Innovation, a systems integrator that specializes in MES and manufacturing intelligence.

Ask for the vendors to do a demo with your requirements and data in two weeks," Whitlock said. "Take a few of your most difficult situations and ask the vendor to show how [its] software handles that situation, then base your decision on the outcome."

For example, if track and trace is an important function for your company, have the candidate demonstrate that its solution can track all the raw materials that went into a product through assembly and then all the way back through repair, including different-length fields and different numbers of fields.

Don't be shy about pushing the vendor. "If the vendor of the solution cannot do this in two weeks," Whitlock asked, "what hope does an end user have to do this a year from now when they own it and the vendor is gone?"

Implementing MES software

As with all enterprise software implementations, start with a pilot project or two, demonstrate value, assuage user fears, and then scale it. "With MES, you can't just whack it in at 15 sites," Jacobson said. Begin with a targeted pilot. Some vendors offer value-based pilots, as in offering a guarantee that the customer will see x amount of benefit from the pilot or they will return the money. 

You will probably want to engage your MES vendor or a systems integrator to help with implementation. Otherwise, you risk getting bogged down in ramp-up issues that the pros could easily handle.

The technical part of the MES implementation usually proceeds pretty smoothly, though the customary glitches and delays can be expected. But the delays are measured in weeks, not months or years, as with large ERP deployments.

The big challenge is managing cultural change. "MES will have a major impact on the organization," Jacobson said. "You are completely changing the way many people used to do their jobs."

This naturally creates unrest. Have your executive sponsor keep harping on the message of why MES is important to your organization's future. This executive should emphasize that the project is not about reducing headcount (unless that is in fact the thrust of your project, in which case, keeping silent on that point might be prudent). These things will go a long way toward getting everyone working together to make the implementation go well.

You can skip the typical generic one- or two-day employee training that would be done after most large projects, Jacobson added. That approach won't get your employees what they most need, which is a blow-by-blow walk-through of how the new system will change their worklife. Train a few power users and have them train their peers on the job.

About the author: Lauren Gibbons Paul writes often on manufacturing technology issues. She can be reached at lauren.paul@comcast.net.

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