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The Multi-Directional Evolution of MES Software

By ME Staff Report

New MES configurations interface with other IT systems, link to key business functions


Originally developed for tracking and control of shop floor operations in larger manufacturing environments, Manufacturing Execution System (MES) software has evolved into an extensive variety of network configurations.

These configurations enable them to interface with other IT systems, ranging from advanced Manufacturing Operations Management (MOM) software to more traditional Enterprise Research Planning (ERP), and linking to functions as varied as customer services, communication, and accounting. Likewise, the addition of new and/or improved capabilities gives manufacturing firms the ability to develop highly individualized systems that extend beyond traditional information and control to include functions as varied as customer “partnering” relationships, predictive analysis, and strategic planning.

Further, cloud-based capabilities have enabled medium and even smaller-sized companies to realize the benefits of MES at an affordable cost, and modularization has created a user-friendly approach that permits extending their networks in a step-by-step manner.

As MES has evolved, the definition has become much more flexible and can vary widely depending on system objectives; incorporated features as established by the system provider; and the ultimate usage, modification, and extensions added by the end user.

Andrew Robling, principal product manager at Epicor Software Corp. (Austin, TX), references the most basic definition of MES as “a system that monitors activities on the shop floor. This could refer to machine monitoring but might also include production data. Even at its most basic level, MES can be incorporated as a standalone system or in concert with other IT tools.”

Mike Hart, director of product management for manufacturing and IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) solutions at Plex Systems (Troy, MI), sees the current challenge for MES in terms of two separate but overlapping requirements.

“On the one hand, there is the traditional MES function of monitoring shop floor equipment,” he said. “But, to be truly effective in improving production, it has to be capable of connecting with systems that can couple the business layer with shop-floor operations to provide a more complete picture.”

Adam Forde, product manager at ECi Software Solutions Inc. (Fort Worth, TX) agreed. “Increasingly, MES is working with and enlarging ERP systems and has advanced from monitoring functions into a production management perspective.”

According to Jeff Price, executive vice president and general manager of Freedom software at 5ME LLC (Cincinnati), “The influence of automation and IoT technology has introduced modular technology capable of rapid upward integration. By incorporating interfaces to other data platforms, today’s IIoT solutions not only provide shop floor and production data but, through connectivity to other platforms, can deliver comprehensive analytics. Further, the need for data integration has prompted end-user demand for a more unified data architecture.”

Complex Challenges

To be capable of improving production, MES software must be capable of connecting with systems that integrate business functions with shop-floor operations. Photo credit: Plex Systems

Customer and industry-specific needs present complex challenges to system providers. Maurizio Pazzini, vice president of technical enablement and product support for MOM at Siemens PLM Software (Plano, TX) believes that proper implementation requires suppliers to precisely identify and define the customer’s needs from both a specific and overall industrial standpoint.

“We begin by asking about the specific manufacturing need,” he said. “Is this a new installation or replacing a legacy system? What are the overall challenges inherent in this particular industrial segment? For instance, many aerospace companies still rely on manual processes, and now they are introducing digitalization to the shop floor and creating a more advanced business model. The automotive industry, on the other hand, is a mature industry that requires upgrading through the integration of newer systems with existing complementary technology.”

Although frequently associated with basic industries, MES and ancillary IT systems have been adapted to process industries, including pharmaceutical and consumer packaged goods.

Martin Petrick, product manager for MES at Rockwell Automation Inc. (Milwaukee), explained: “In addition to the basic goal of putting things together efficiently and on time, there are industry-specific drivers. The pharmaceutical industry needs electronic batch recording to provide evidence that the process is in strict conformance with regulatory demands. Similarly, in the much more cost sensitive packaged goods industry, there is a need for material tracking in order to manage yields in line with ‘continuous improvement’ goals.”

The speed with which MES and other IT functions have developed and the concurrent simplification of system components has greatly improved accessibility for manufacturers and suppliers in smaller sized facilities.

As with many other IT systems, MES was originally developed for large manufacturers with multiple remote facilities. More than a manufacturing information system, the software was interactive so as to quickly convey data ranging from new designs to engineering changes throughout the organization simultaneously.

Increasingly, select data—ranging from part programs to estimated cycle times and maintenance information—is supplied directly to operators on the floor, either at the machine or through tablets or other mobile devices. This “stratified” approach has resulted in modular components more easily adapted to smaller sized facilities and spurred the development of ancillary capabilities, including quality reports, inventory status, and ordering systems that can be used by distributors, dealers, and customers.

The Cloud Drives MES

In terms of MES and other systems’ accessibility for smaller businesses, the single greatest factor has been use of the cloud. “Cloud-based software allows the small/medium shop market to take advantage of more sophisticated tools to help maximize production capacity, and can incorporate newer visual tools,” said Forde of ECi. “For instance, we now have the ability to generate visual production schedules for quick identification of both problems and opportunities.”

Epicor’s Robling noted: “The cloud can provide access to the Industrial Internet of Things and enable systems to be run on as few as one or two machines. Smaller shops can begin with a simple monitoring system for up and down machine time and later add features, including temperature- and pressure-related data.”

John Singer, marketing and channel sales manager for Freedom software at 5ME, also cited the importance of modular features in system scalability.

“We make sure that our standard base package is very economical,” he said. “Our customers can quickly implement and get the benefits of Freedom. They can continue to expand the capabilities with access to other features, including maintenance, SPC, and custom data for additional analytics. With our software installed directly on the machine, we can collect any data item from the controller, along with data from any externally installed machine sensors to ensure complete visibility of machine performance.”

Regarding data security, Singer stated, “We use a variety of tools to ensure that customer data resident in the cloud is inaccessible to anyone but the originator.”

In addressing the growth and evolution of smaller systems, Siemens’ Pazzini referenced what he calls the elastic system: “The logical growth pattern involves integration between system components. For instance, in establishing an interface between PLM and ERP with MES, the goal is to link shop-floor functions with engineering to obtain the comprehensive feedback that can only come from a single system. Even in small to medium-sized shops, this ultimately requires the leap to total integration. Once that occurs, the pathway to organizational innovation opens.”

Touching on the scalability of systems designed for use by non-traditional and process manufacturers, Todd Montpas, product manager, information software for Rockwell Automation, observed, “We have to provide the potential for scalability for what are often unique applications or deployment challenges. We do this by creating a pilot project in which we define and tackle the highest priority problems within a defined scope and then proceed in a step-by-step protocol. Often, this might involve something like packaging, which frequently features a degree of commonality among otherwise different industries. By focusing on a wider scope of user needs, we can create reusable ‘building blocks’ that simplify the deployment, provide flexibility, and allow upgrades as technology advances.”

Installations Require Teamwork

Select data can be supplied directly to operators on the floor, either at the machine or through tablets or other mobile devices.

The complexities inherent in the installation of a new MES requires an individualized approach and clear agreement between the supplier and the customer on expected benefits. The supplier frequently must invest in extensive preparatory work to develop the proposal. This can include valuation of other existing systems in terms of networking compatibility, recommendations as to the abandonment of redundant or obsolete IT components, and long-term planning for the eventual augmentation of the new system. Depending on several key factors, the quality of the proposal and the cost of sale can be severely impacted.

Different suppliers have evolved strategies to handle specific situations. According to Hart, Plex understands that solutions must be flexible: “Thanks to the cloud, customers can adopt system components at their own rate, allowing them to start small, see what works, and grow from there.”
Similarly, Rockwell Automation aims for a modular approach, according to Petrick: “Standardization results in the development of modular systems that [produce] an immediate reduction in integration cost and risk to the customer, speeding up payback.”

The Siemens approach is geared to companies with an IT department and stresses methodology and goal orientation. “By being aware of their goals and values, we can work with them to develop ‘best practices,’” said Pazzini.

Pursuit of smaller customers has been successfully accomplished by 5ME through a combination of standardized data, the cloud, and MT Connect. “Smaller operations frequently have a higher population of legacy machines,” said Price. “To accommodate that, we use existing electrical connections or add sensors that enable them to communicate with both basic and more advanced integrated systems.”

Epicor seeks to partner with customers whose goals include ongoing upgrades. Robling commented, “The use of data exchange modules allows eventual integration with other systems and, with our guidance, many of our customers have found that they can develop customized integration strategies on their own.”

Observed Forde, “The most crucial guarantor of success in the installation of any new MES system has to do with the ‘discovery phase.’ By defining our customers’ IT experience—or lack of it—we can suggest [effective] modules. We have actually helped transition some shops from primitive spreadsheet programs to what will eventually become comprehensive data interactive systems.”

A growing number of larger manufacturers in industries including aerospace and defense, automotive, and earth moving equipment are entering into “select supplier” partnerships with smaller companies for the production of parts ranging from commodity units to sophisticated prototypes. Controlled access to MES and other relevant networks enables the prime contractor to check on part status and availability and to quickly and easily affect any desired changes.

Price of 5ME has worked with several examples of such external systems integration. “We’re increasingly seeing manufacturers in the aircraft industry recommend such connections with their suppliers. One major manufacturer of construction and related equipment makes system compatibility a condition of doing business. Today’s IIoT solutions have facilitated the ability of contractor and supplier to meld key elements of their IT functions.”

Hart of Plex Systems and Forde at ECi both noted the increasing popularity of the cloud in cooperation with select data portals. Said Hart, “The cloud is an enabler, allowing companies to achieve cooperative data flows across their supply base with everything from a simple web-enabled portal all the way to integrated data flows across business systems.”

Forde observed that, “Customer portals or dedicated self-service portals are really an outgrowth of EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) that grew up in the supply chain management efforts of the auto industry, where part flows are critical.”

Pazzini cautioned: “It’s not uncommon to find objections citing the fear of security breaches. One of the most effective ways to counter this is to demonstrate the ability to segregate data, thereby minimizing security risks.”

MES Aids Equipment Selection

The effectiveness of MES in monitoring the performance and efficiency of existing shop equipment suggests the corollary question: Can MES aid in selecting new equipment?

“Comprehensive machine performance modeling as a means of defining the most desirable equipment for select manufacturing procedures will require more accepted standards so as to provide a truly accurate base of comparability and ease of integration,” said Petrick. “Because this is being requested by customers, I would expect such standards within the next five to 10 years.”

MES can help select equipment indirectly as well. Forde suggested that “by incorporating MES to identify bottlenecks and defining production problems, we can provide guidance in the system functions necessary in new machines to correct the problem. Also, they can suggest the most desirable data collection capabilities.”

Hart sees an indirect approach using the IIoT in concert with machine sensors to provide data to help guide machine selection. Robling suggested that, by monitoring existing equipment and comparing cost of ownership, the life cycle of a production unit can be calculated, thereby providing guidance not only on new machine selection but on a possible redefinition of the production path.

Pazzini noted that cooperation from other departments, including procurement and production planning, can help define performance characteristics for optimal purchase decisions.

“In smaller to medium-size manufacturing companies, MES and other IT systems must take into account the current employee base,” said Pazzini, adding that operators and other shop floor personnel must see that the benefits of the new system are shared in a way that minimizes any perceived threats.

“Today, the introduction of new systems is not as difficult as in the past,” he said. “Because we are living in a largely digital age, most people are familiar with the basic tools involved and are no longer intimidated by them… Problems can be eased by the involvement of ‘credible’ people in the organization.”

Worker Engagement Needed

MES incorporates participation ranging from the shop floor to top management. Photo credit: Plex Systems

Hart said that the introduction of new technology must engage the workers and get their perspective. “What do they want? Let them advocate and have a voice in choosing and implementing the models. Training is a culture of decision making that exists on various levels, including in the classroom and on the job. When people are involved, they will own a system.”

Also, MES software can relieve the tedium of paper-based and other manual systems, said Montpas. “The ability to carry mobile devices empowers the shop floor employee and integrates his function into the larger scope of the manufacturing process.”

Despite the many positive results, problems can still arise. “Without a doubt, IIoT solutions provide transparency that can be disruptive,” said Price. “However, thanks to our background in machine tools, lean manufacturing, and Six Sigma, we bridge the gap between operational technology and information technology by involving everyone to view what we are doing as a continuous improvement program. By focusing on the process and the information and the data it provides, we are achieving quick wins, gaining support from the shop floor as well as management.”

Although MES adoption is generally viewed positively, the concurrent adoption of other technologies can magnify employees’ insecurities. “Occasionally, companies attempting to upgrade both their IT functions and production capabilities create a workplace dissonance that can have extremely negative effects,” said Forde. “We have seen this in instances when MES systems are introduced parallel to the incorporation of robotic technologies. The best way to handle this is to stress the advantages, including the ability for the employees to grow in their jobs. When people see the advantages that can accrue to them personally, they will be much more likely to not only understand but to embrace an overall technological upgrade.”

As MES becomes more modular, costs of acquisition have become much more flexible. Historically, the favored method of acquisition has been through perpetual licenses with an annual maintenance fee covering both supplier assistance and ongoing upgrades.

Since the number of upgrades has increased and smaller customers have chosen to acquire separate modules as needed, subscription models have become more popular.

While virtually all suppliers strive to devise individual pricing solutions, some cautions are noted. Pazzini indicated that, where customers are widely dispersed and/or maintain international facilities, technical infrastructure problems can arise and the expense of handling customers becomes a consideration either in the overall price or as an add-on.

Robling referenced the costs of older equipment: “At the start, it is essential to evaluate all systems and production components. Legacy equipment might require updated controllers or sensors. Likewise, integration with older or more exotic software can add to the expense.”

As with virtually all technology, the popularity and population of MES and related and ancillary systems has increased over time and thereby made them more accessible to a larger base of end users. The advantages achievable through the incorporation of such tools, coupled with the need to remain “digitally competitive” indicate that there is an exceptionally bright future not only for MES but for systems that will offer combined IT capabilities and more diversified modules.

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