Few large manufacturers today would even think of running their operations without a custom-configured manufacturing execution system (MES), but as plants age, are companies making sure that their MES software is staying up to date?
The systems have improved significantly since they were first installed thanks to innovations, expanded user needs, and greater requirements for better, faster and cheaper manufacturing.
So where does this leave a company? And where should organizations begin reviewing their own MES software to be sure that it still has what it takes for business? A good place to begin is with a deep review of everything -- from existing applications to best practices checklists -- and a careful analysis of the company's future demands. Then take a good look at the evolution that's been going on in the MES marketplace to determine whether the business needs to fix or replace critical MES infrastructure.
How to begin an MES evaluation
To make that transition successfully, companies need to do a careful and detailed analysis of every manufacturing process, production step, staff member and system from top to bottom as they look toward keeping their MES software up-to-date, according to Simon Jacobson, an analyst with Boston-based AMR Research.
"The thing that is going to be sort of the game-changer here is that as we see more Web-based systems, you don't have to go workstation to workstation anymore to make changes [throughout a plant]," Jacobson said. "But the culture has never been brought along to use them appropriately." This has often kept some MES from truly bringing all the benefits and savings they are capable of providing.
To make them work most efficiently, it's time to ask all the right questions as you analyze your needs, plants and present capabilities. "The biggest best-practice question to ask here is what business goals are you driving toward and defining with your MES goals," Jacobson said.
Sometimes, upgrading an entire MES is "not as important as putting in a performance management layer as part of the manufacturing architecture," he said. "I think the savvy companies are beginning to realize that MES is just part of the manufacturing equation."
At the same time, the importance of a finely honed MES has never been more apparent. "No longer is it being done in isolation," Jacobson said. "It's being done as part of the end-to-end business. In this economy, the only thing I'm really seeing change in MES is [that] people look for quicker returns. It used to be two to three years on a basic implementation, and now they're trying to do it faster, cheaper and better."
The importance of selecting the right MES software vendor
One of the other critical and challenging things a company has to do as it moves toward updating or replacing an MES is to select the MES software vendor or vendors very carefully, said Greg Gorbach, an analyst with ARC Advisory Group in Dedham, Mass.
"MES is interpreted and defined differently by industry, and the needs are different for different production types," Gorbach said. "Historically, they were created by someone familiar with a particular domain, and they were optimized for that. Many systems today are built to handle a wider range of uses. You need to fit them into your particular environment and your work and operations. It's not so much custom as it is getting the right configuration."
A common problem, though, is that manufacturers often think that their specific processes are so specialized that they want to stick with their own homegrown systems instead of bringing in modern commercial MES applications, Gorbach said.
"Then, down the road, they talk about rolling MES out to multiple factories," he said, and they see the limitations when the homegrown applications can't be easily scaled like new off-the-shelf products. "They can't appreciate what can be done with today's more modern products."
At that point, company leaders need to know when to take the steps to replace what they have and finally pull the trigger on purchasing the right products. "For those companies that do that analysis, there can be some big benefits," he said.
Find better MES tools to improve workflow
Another key to look for in your next or updated MES, Gorbach said, is better collaborative MES tools to keep the workflow on the factory floor going smoothly. One of the latest innovations starting to appear in MES, he said, is Facebook-like webpages that can be stored in Web-based MES production systems. But instead of the pages being about a person, they feature a specific piece of equipment on the manufacturing floor. The collaborative page can include links to the equipment, and it can be made available to the plant manager, service engineers, tech support staff and equipment operators.
"If a problem arises with that piece of equipment, they can open an interactive chat or diagnostics session," Gorbach said. "The page can be oriented around a piece of equipment to work on it. Those are the kinds of things that we're only starting to see coming into this space."
Another big growth area that Gorbach has seen in MES involves add-in connectors that can help companies tie new plant operations into their existing MES software to extend their use and gain new features. That can allow companies to add new manufacturing capabilities without having to replace their costly and complex platforms entirely.
"One thing driving an uptake in business in this area is that companies need to get more information out of their plants, and they need their plants to be well-connected to their businesses," Gorbach said. By adding connectors or another layer of information-gathering software to the existing MES stack, companies can bring in more details about their manufacturing operations in one plant or across all facilities.
"Once they see that," he said, "they begin to see that one plant is performing more efficiently than other plants, so they can see what they need to change" -- and the benefits that can be gained.
The slow economy has made this kind of analysis even more important. "A few years ago, it was not uncommon to buy one system for one facility and then put in more as needed [over time]," Gorbach said. "Now, that's changed to: 'Let's do all 15 plants now and give me a deal.'"
About the author: Todd R. Weiss is a technology journalist and freelance writer who worked as a staff reporter for Computerworld.com from 2000 to 2008. He spends his spare time working on a book about an unheralded member of the 1957 Milwaukee Braves and watching classic Humphrey Bogart movies. Follow him on Twitter @ TechManTalking.