Manufacturing Execution System (MES) Needs vs. Wants

Many of you have probably started down the digital transformation path for your manufacturing operations already. Or you’re at least thinking about putting a plan in place soon to go from paper spreadsheets and clipboards to more of a digital system. 

A Phased Approach

Before you go through and start to build or update your roadmap, you need to look at this as a phased approach and think about all of the systems that are within your facility currently to run the plant. Different software systems like your ERP, MRP, CMMS, and MES, {all those acronyms are for software systems that are used in manufacturing, not what you put after your name on social media 😉 }, as well as a host of other homegrown systems that have been developed over the years. 

Think about where you want to start. MES must be part of the plan, and just like all plans, needs to be planned and deployed as a phased approach. What can you do first and easily to get some quick wins? And where do you want to be in the end, in the ‘final’ phase? That’s a bit rhetorical because this journey will most likely continue to evolve as you continue to drive improvements.

One System To Do It All?

You may think that you want to get one system that does it all. But in reality, that’s just not feasible.

You wouldn’t buy a smart TV to run your whole digital home life. TV is obviously great for some things. But it makes good sense to connect the smart TV to other devices, like your cell phone or Alexa, and use the different systems to manage various home electronic devices. 

You also wouldn’t ask your TV provider to build you a cell phone or an in-home automation system, right? The key is to purchase an out of the box solution that can easily connect together with the other systems to make up a more robust and holistic solution. 

Manufacturing is one of the last industry sectors to shift to this low risk, high return mentality. but with today’s issues we are all facing, they are now starting to look for ways to manage those issues.

Just like most ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) systems, they say they can do everything, and to a certain degree, they can. They’re very good at financial tracking in the plant and just okay at all of the other systems you need to run the shop floor.

The same applies to MES (Manufacturing Execution Systems) companies. They say they can do everything and they probably could do almost everything if you have a lot of time and a lot of money to pour into that effort. But it just depends on what you’re looking for and the needs in your plant: whether you need to go to machine intelligence or just manage the many workflows. 

Do You Need Product Traceability from MES?

A true MES system will track the genealogy of your product: this is what a good MES really does well. Now, all companies may not need to get down to this level of detail in records, but if you do, here are three must-haves that you can get developed to help in managing the building of the product: 

  1. Product traceability. The genealogy of the product. Scanning in the lot numbers of the raw materials and components at each stage of the process, thus marrying them to the final product that gets packed and shipped to your customers. And only allow product to be packed and shipped if it passes all critical stations along the process. You know where it was made and when it was made.
  2. Machine Configuration. This is the recipe management of building the product. Configure the machine to produce the product with the right settings. I have seen some world-class examples: when you scan the build order barcode, it will automatically set up the machine through automation and is already configured to run that precise model, adjusting the machine paraments to the proper specifications.
  3. Machine Process Controls. This is where your system can track the parameters of the equipment while it’s making the product. For example, monitoring the pressures, weights, diameters, lengths, etc., all while the machine is running, automatically making adjustments for variations in the components, keeping all tolerances within the build plan specifications. Also, when a measurement is detected that is outside those set limits and tolerances, the system can stop the process and send alerts to those who need to come and correct the issue.

These three steps are for those operations that need this level of detail in their product records and are usually developed in the later phases of their digital transformation plan. This does take a considerable amount of time, effort, planning, and of course money, to develop and maintain the traceability system after deployment. However, all of these expenditures are more than worth it should you ever need this information to deal with customer issues, and in the worst case, a product recall. 

Tying Systems Together For A Single Interface

For a lot of companies and their product offerings, you don’t need a system that provides precise genealogy level detail. For them, I recommend a system that can overlay the other systems in the plant that communicate with their ERP, PLM (Product Life Management), and CMMS (Computerized Maintenance Management System), etc. 

In those instances, you may only require one system that the people on the production floor need to learn and work within. Then, let the back end of the software do its job and be the communicator to those other systems. Get the best out of these separate software systems and use today’s API technology to connect to and communicate across systems. 

Address the Basics First

If your digital transformation plan includes an MES right near the beginning of your journey, make sure it includes the capability to address the common problems that hamper the building of the product like: 

  • Skills and training of the people building the product as well as supporting operations
  • Line stoppages due to material issues: materials shortages, wrong material, or incorrect packaging brought out to the line
  • Machine breakdowns and minor stoppages
  • Quality issues like scrap or aesthetic, visual defects that the operators discover. 

MES Lite or LES (Lean Execution System)

An alternative for those who don’t want or need to spend several years and millions of dollars to deploy is to look at something like an MES lite or an LES manufacturing system. These provide a way to address the problems on the floor and manage the many different workflows that go into building the product. 

This can be a more cost-effective way to address the real issues hidden in the factory. These can usually be deployed in just a few months and start you down your transformation path. And eventually, if needed, you could get the machine controls, configurations, and recipe management in place to work with the machine intelligence for your product history down the road. 

Start small and evolve into what you need based on the management of issues and/or abnormalities that arise. Like the old and true saying goes, ‘Let the data tell you what you need’, not emotion or urge to follow trends.