ERP software developers, resellers, and even consultants might not like to hear this, but no matter how powerful the system, it can still leave a few questions unanswered regarding the shop floor. For example, a properly implemented enterprise resource planning (ERP) system does a great job of collecting production data, but much of it doesn’t arrive until after the operator has clocked out for the day, the warehouse has issued the material, or the job is marked as complete. Similar holes exist around machine maintenance activities, document and quality control, work-in-process (WIP) tracking, and the Holy Grail of enterprise resource planning—finite production scheduling.
Manufacturers have dealt with these shortcomings for years. Some have purchased optional ERP modules or bolt-on software solutions to fill the gaps; others have simply lived with less than ideal visibility, relying on tribal knowledge and frequent trips to the production area to make up for what ERP lacks.
None of this is meant to disparage ERP in any way, however, because where would manufacturers and shop owners be without its powerful capabilities? That said, no software system can be everything to everyone. ERP may be an excellent solution for the front office, the warehouse, and the sales, customer service, and purchasing teams, but the shop floor? Meh.
“At the end of the day, ERP is a very business-driven tool,” said Raffaello Lepratti, global vice president for business development and MOM for marketing operations management at Siemens Digital Industries Software, Plano, Texas. “It tells you how much material you need to purchase and what customer orders are due to ship, but very little in the way of how that material is being consumed or whether there’s a bottleneck that will affect product deliveries. A manufacturing execution system (MES) answers these questions and more.”
Although machine-based, real-time data collection and other MES functions began appearing well before 1997 (most notably with the development of SCADA systems in the early 1970s), that was the year the Manufacturing Enterprise Solutions Association published MESA-11, a document outlining the 11 core functions of MES. These include:
As discussed in “Manufacturing Execution Systems: The Missing Link,” in the October 2019 issue of Manufacturing Engineering, MES can be thought of as ERP for the shop floor. As with its big sister, manufacturing operations management (MOM), MES provides a host of tools that make machining, sheet metal fabrication, plastic injection molding, 3D printing, and practically all other manufacturing processes more efficient, more predictable, and more profitable.
You might be thinking, “Hey, our ERP system performs most or even all of those 11 functions. Why should we invest even more money and spend more time implementing a system that replicates what we already have?”
It’s a fair question. But just as the Reader’s Digest version of “War and Remembrance” might give readers a rough feel for the characters in Herman Wouk’s bestselling novel, only the unabridged version explains the horrors of war and its effects on those who’ve endured it. Granted, the shop floor is nothing like global conflict (even though it might feel that way sometimes), but that’s what MES brings to the manufacturing table: a comprehensive view of the production process, with information that’s both timely and detailed.
This visibility has become more critical over recent years, and even recent months. In light of the manufacturing industry’s embrace of the IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things), it’s clear there’s a need for greater insight into production processes. And as Andrew Robling, senior product manager at Epicor Software Corp., Austin, Texas explained, the COVID-19 crisis has only exacerbated the call for MES’ broad capabilities.
“Before the pandemic, someone could always walk out to the shop floor if they had a question about a part or process,” Robling said. “Now, we have large numbers of people working remotely, and they need to stay up to speed on production activities. And as the IIoT has shown us, manufacturers are increasingly interested in machine data, better visualization, and automating wherever possible. MES plays a role in all of that.”
Mike Hart agreed. The director of product strategy for manufacturing and Industrial IoT at Plex Systems Inc., Troy, Mich., Hart pointed to three relatively recent developments that make MES both easier to implement and more important to manufacturers than ever before. The first of these is just as Robling explained: the ability of IIoT-friendly MES software to provide contextual insights into the full spectrum of machining and fabrication processes, as well as those of non-discrete, process-based manufacturers.
There’s also cloud-based computing and data storage. Not only does the cloud make user collaboration and information sharing easier than on-premises software systems, but together with SaaS (software as a service) deployments they become more cost-effective as well. And finally, there’s Industry 4.0, whose implementation depends in part on the types of digital information that MES provides. “The cloud, IIoT, and MES are all excellent technologies that manufacturers can use to begin their digital transformation in a scalable manner,” said Hart.
There are some excellent reasons to do so, he added. “Every manufacturer is different, but most see significant improvements across a wide range of shop floor metrics after investing in MES.” One example is MPI Corp., Indianapolis, which operates companies involved in flat roll material servicing and distribution, metal stamping, heat treating and other finishing processes. “MPI has been collecting machine data for years, but saw a 30 percent reduction in unplanned downtime along with 10 percent reductions in planned maintenance, job transitioning times, and their total cost of quality,” said Hart.
Raffaello Lepratti offered similar MES and IIoT successes, but sees things a bit differently on the topic of Industry 4.0. He suggested that the manufacturing community still has a long way to go. “Industry 4.0 remains a vision,” he said. “Yes, we have a great deal of technologically advanced hardware and it continues to grow more intelligent each day, but most of it is not yet decentralized, able to think on its own and self-organize. That’s what will be required to achieve all that the fourth industrial revolution promises.”
Another notion he’d like to dispel is that MES will no longer be necessary once the IIoT becomes more advanced. “There’s a lot of confusion and noise in the marketplace over this point, and it’s important to recognize that the two are complementary, not contradictory,” he said. “Nor do I feel that cloud is a must-have for an MES implementation. Not every industry is ready to digest the cloud, and for various reasons, will remain committed to on-premise computing. That said, most are beginning to see benefits from dashboarding on the cloud or sometimes planning on the cloud, even though they’re not necessarily executing on the cloud.”
Epicor’s Robling has his own manufacturing execution success stories to share, at least one of them with a COVID-19 twist. “Because MES is becoming easier to implement as well as more powerful, we’ve definitely seen more shops go down that road over the past year or so,” he said. “In fact, one of them—plastic injection molder Plasti-Coil / Tri-Tec Corp. in Lake Geneva, Wis.—completed their MES implementation just before the pandemic got going, and their CFO, Patrick Austin, noted that it was a tremendous help. He said this: ‘Our medical customers needed orders moved up and expedited, and wanted to know when we could get them their parts. With Epicor Advanced MES, we were able to drop an order into our scheduler and accurately predict when it would finish.’ ”
Pandemic or not, Robling and the others interviewed for this article describe today’s world of IIoT-powered Big Data and sensor-equipped machine tools as the perfect environment for an MES solution. Manufacturers can quickly gather as much or as little data as they’d like from the production floor and either feed it to their ERP system or consume it in other ways, including advanced analytics, user-configurable dashboards, and remote monitoring. The last application is especially relevant given the industry-wide push for automation, yet another technology whose adoption has accelerated due to COVID-19.
Whatever the system and however it’s implemented, though, all the sources for this article strongly recommended that shops of all sizes take a hard look at MES now rather than later. Given its advanced finite scheduling capabilities, closed-loop quality management, real-time inventory tracking, and potential integration with CNC machinery and other types of production equipment, MES offers unprecedented possibilities for process improvement and control.
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