Deciding whether you need a manufacturing execution system (MES) is easier than ever, yet deciding how to proceed is more difficult than ever. Sound confusing? It might be -- or it might not be.
Do you Need MES?
For about 20 years, people have been asking me: "If my company has modern automated controls and an effective enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, do we also need MES?" My answer is more likely to be "Yes" than ever before. In fact, Cambashi and other industry analysts' surveys for the past five years or so have showed that a higher percentage of companies plan to buy MES than most other major application types.
Why does it make sense for so many companies to buy MES? Because they have not yet done so, at least not on a widespread basis. Many manufacturers are realizing that their carefully crafted information flows have a big hole in them -- between the automation and the enterprise. That missing plantwide view is key to understanding your ability to fill orders at the time, quantity, and quality the customer requires. The plant is also where you can best measure suppliers. Being in the middle of the product lifecycle, it is where engineering change requests often originate. In fact, our research has repeatedly shown that the performance of plant operations correlates closely to the performance of the business.
There may be some businesses that don't need to buy MES, but they are the few leaders that have excellent, modern and fully-implemented ERP and automated control systems. Even then, whether you need MES is largely a matter of how you define the term, and how you describe your current systems. If the definition of MES is the plantwide information system that guides, tracks, and monitors the end-to-end production process, then, as one high tech industry executive quipped, "Every production company actually has MES -- it just might be manual."
So manufacturing and production companies need MES. Most of them need a software solution to deliver an integrated view of the plant operation that also delivers a means to enforce best practices. It also delivers the information that customers want just as much as they want the product you ship them. Given that the software in this market has been evolving and improving for over 20 years, there is a good chance that there is a commercially available solution to fit most companies.
The Hard(er) Questions
If we agree that production needs to be visible, well documented, and tightly controlled, the case to invest in MES is reasonably clear. Yet key questions remain that keep the market confused:
Do we need MES or do we need manufacturing operations management (MOM)? (MOM is the term that has become popular due to its use in the ISA-95 standard for the integration of enterprise and control systems that provides a definition of functions and workflows for these plantwide "Level 3" systems.)
What does MES mean to our company? How should we scope our requirements for the MES functionality we need?
Will we need a third solution provider for MES? Or can one of our existing solution providers offer us what we need?
Most companies will have their own specific questions as well, but it's hard to gauge whether those will involve the team required to assess and purchase; the approach to research the options; how to make the business case; how to evaluate the options rationally; or how to ensure the project actually delivers on the vision.
Getting to Answers
Each company must answer those questions themselves. Yet my experience as an industry analyst in the MES/MOM market for years gives me a perspective to help you set up a framework to answer those questions.
MES vs. MOM: these terms are largely interchangeable, and whether a solution provider uses one or the other should not matter to you. You can find overlapping but different definitions of each term, but don't waste your time on that. The ISA-95 Model is hugely beneficial in helping you to scope the functionality as well as the integration into your enterprise system. The ISA-95 standard can also help everyone come to a common understanding of what you are pursuing with an MES project.
Defining MES: MES/MOM will certainly mean different things to different companies. In highly continuous process industries, the distributed control system (DCS) may be the hardware platform for MES. At the other extreme, in manual-intensive operations, the MES may be the primary control system in the plant. The key is to identify what is most critical for the plant to be profitable and to satisfy customers. Requirements must start from that business view, and also come from the detail of how the supervisors and floor personnel must work in that plant's environment. A useful tool for software product education is Logica's MES Product Survey. This Guide has a great deal of information about dozens of products. It provides a view of industries, standards compliance, configurability, functionality, and technologies. The Guide also indicates some of the trends in the industry overall.
Do we need a separate MES supplier? This is the question that has become most confusing. Several of the major automation providers now offer MES, including Emerson, GE, Honeywell, Invensys, Rockwell, and Siemens. Several of the ERP providers offer more MES than the "plant floor module" as well. Most notably, CDC Software, SAP and Solarsoft have bought MES and manufacturing intelligence companies.
Now the product lifecycle management (PLM) vendors are in the game too, with Dassault DELMIA and Siemens having made significant MES acquisitions. After that "encroachment" there are still literally hundreds of independent software providers offering MES/MOM in every corner of the globe. Some are regional; others focus on particular manufacturing industries; yet others focus on particular functional areas. It's fine to have a bias toward the solution from an existing provider, but finding a few independent market leaders in your type of business and comparing them in an unbiased way can lead to a better decision -- and more leverage with your existing automation or ERP partner.
The complex set of questions about how to actually move forward is finally addressed in an excellent independent certificate course. The Manufacturing Enterprise Solutions Association (MESA) offers the Global Education Program with both Certificate of Awareness for MES/MOM Business awareness for advisors and decision makers and Certificate of Competency for MES/MOM Methodologies programs for those who will run the MES selection and implementation programs. Courses are offered in various locations throughout the world on a schedule, and can also be ordered as a company-specific or "in-house" program. For more information click here.
Make it Easier
The evidence shows manufacturers need this plantwide software. Most companies that implement MES find it makes life easier for production employees and makes profitability more predictable for plants.
Because production plants and processes vary far more than accounting, inventory, or even product design processes, the array of solution providers and functionality available can be confusing. To begin your journey, get some education, assemble a multi-disciplinary team and research solutions in use in your type of business. Then ask the right questions of your internal team, the software providers, and your trusted advisors. Whether they are systems integrators, distributors, management consultants, or industry analysts, they should have your interests at heart and most likely have some relevant experience.
Make MES/MOM a cornerstone of your approach to improvement in your plant, your supply chain, your product lifecycle and even your customer relationships. It can be. Each manufacturer must ask the right questions. Then, seek the answers. Asking and answering MES/MOM questions gets easier once you have some of your own experience.
Julie Fraser is president of Cambashi, Inc., http://www.cambashi.com the U.S. arm of the industrial-focused analyst/consulting/market research firm based in the United Kingdom.