If ever there were an orphan software for manufacturing, it's MES. In case you're not familiar with the term--no apologies required from the uninitiated--MES means manufacturing execution systems, otherwise known as shop-floor-control systems. MES tracks production, quality, inventory, and process controls. It was supposed to take the manufacturing world by hurricane a few years ago, but the only wind and precipitation that was felt from the advent of MES could have been emitted by a nine-year-old with a dime-store kazoo. Now all of a sudden, after years of languishing in the dark recesses of companies, MES is getting noticed. And the reason can be summed up in two words: supply chain. Manufacturers are realizing that all of their fancy supply-chain plans--along with the expensive enterprise-resource-planning (ERP) systems that were supposed to make them a reality--can't really deliver on the promise without some solid real-time information on events taking place in the factory. What batches are in process? How much raw material has been consumed? What specific processes were used to create products? Those are all questions for which company salespeople and planners need answers, yet they can't be addressed without effective MES software in place. "We see this as the next big wave of development and investment by manufacturing companies," says Graham Martin, global SAP manager for integrated manufacturing at Origin, a large European systems-integration firm based in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. A subsidiary of Philips NV, Origin fields a worldwide staff of 1,500 SAP consultants who work with companies on installation of SAP AG's ERP systems. Martin's operation, based in Wilton, England, is working to build smooth integration between MES software packages such as PID into SAP's process-industry module, called PP-PI. "We're seeking to build expertise in this type of solution for our clients," he says. "A number of manufacturers we're working with are installing these SAP modules, but none yet are taking the step of full integration to the factory floor." Many manufacturing firms are just getting started with MES. J.M. Smucker Co., a specialty-foods maker in Orrville, Ohio, recently purchased an MES system but has yet to install it. "We need better information from the plant floor," explains CIO Dick Jirsa. For one thing, a lack of easy integration of plant-floor software into other systems hasn't exactly helped MES. It's not just the complexity, but also the high costs of building the links that manufacturers have found daunting. "I think what people need that they don't have today is better integration of their flow of information," says Julie Fraser, director of market strategies at Industry Directions, a research firm in Newburyport, Mass. Part of the reason this integration has eluded most companies is historic. In the past, many manufacturers built their own plant-floor systems to keep track of things. But as companies today increasingly seek to link systems together, those old custom or homegrown plant-floor control systems become a costly liability. The integration issues alone are a nightmare. There is also the near impossibility of upgrading such older DOS-based systems to today's UNIX or Windows NT-based software packages. In a recent study of ERP to plant-floor systems integration in process industries for Aspen Technology Inc., an MES software firm in Cambridge, Mass., analyst Fraser found that "only the leading-edge operating companies have integrated or interfaced their enterprise and plant systems." That reality finally is sinking in as executives realize their businesses lack the information flow they expected or were promised. "Most of the executives we work with have been blindsided, burned, and frustrated by unexpected discrepancies between planning expectations and the realities achieved in their plants," reports Fraser. For many manufacturers, of course, successfully implementing a company-wide ERP system takes all their effort and then some. For instance, Battle Creek, Mich.-based Kellogg Co. has its plate full installing Oracle Corp.'s ERP system tailored for consumer-packaged-goods companies. "We know we need an MES, but we've got enough to keep us busy," says CIO Jay Schreiner. Adds consultant Martin, "The top-level focus is on surviving the millennium right now and also on restructuring of the business." But that must change soon if companies are to truly connect their manufacturing operations with their suppliers and customers. "Manufacturing has to be integrated into the rest of your business processes if you are ever going to have adequate management of your supply chain," Martin says. One hurdle in the way of shop-floor systems' acceptance is management. "If there's a challenge for MES, it's convincing upper management," says Bernard Asher, president and CEO of RWT Corp., an MES software firm in Mt. Prospect, Ill. "It's presenting the value proposition in a way that these people understand." Asher says the trend in some industries toward making smaller lots in greater varieties increases complexity of factory operations, making MES even more useful. "You're increasing the variability of what happens on the factory floor. In this environment I don't know how you run a business without MES. You can have a batch of new orders, but if no one knows that Plant A is down for maintenance for three days, you're in trouble." Industries that are heavy users of shop-floor software include pharmaceuticals, semiconductors, and chemicals. Merck & Co., Whitehouse Station, N.J., for example, is beginning to replace some of its older home-grown systems at some plants with an MES package called Open Batch from PID Inc., Phoenix. "It provides us with a complete manufacturing record containing all the information we need to demonstrate that the process was completely successful," says Steve Heidel, manufacturing process engineer at the company's West Point, Pa., facility. "We also use the software's recipe capability to download all of our operator instructions." Those companies that have installed a plant-floor system and integrated it with the other business systems say they've gotten a variety of benefits. For example, in the process industries, Fraser reports customer-service improvements, greater accuracy and timeliness of data, higher plant throughput, and cost reductions. Respondents to the Aspen Technology-sponsored study reported that a key challenge for manufacturers as MES software feeds information to the corporate systems is figuring out what to do with the new factory information and then training people to use it. Wrote one, "The next challenge is how you will use and view the information to make better decisions and improve your operation." Added another, "The major training problem is for folks at higher levels. They have new tools to run the enterprise, but they need to know how to use that data." Although shop-floor control systems have yet to catch on in a big way with nonprocess industries, there are signs of renewed momentum in the MES market. "We are seeing a distinct upturn in interest by both traditional and nontraditional manufacturers," reported Advanced Manufacturing Research (AMR) in a February note to customers of its research service. In a January report, AMR also noted that some mid-tier ERP software firms are adding plant-floor capabilities as a means to gain a functionality advantage over larger vendors. And ERP customers are starting to pressure their software vendors for MES functions. "Our customers are telling us it's an important issue," says Roger Covey, CEO of System Software Associates (SSA), Chicago. "MES is something often overlooked in the purchasing cycle, but it shows up afterward." To respond to its customers' needs, SSA will soon release a new software package called dcServ that will use business objects--basically icons representing chunks of software code--to connect any MES system to its object-based BPCS ERP system. Likewise, MES firms are busy making preconfigured links to ERP systems. "We have a direct API [applications programming interface] into SAP," says Don Allen, director of corporate relations at Wonderware Corp., an Irvine, Calif., MES software developer. "That way, you can go all the way from the plant floor into the ERP system in real time, so as you consume raw materials, you can see exactly what's available and what's in process." Finally, some firms also offer an ERP package along with MES. For instance, Effective Management Systems Inc., Milwaukee, makes software for discrete and mixed-mode manufacturers for not only ERP and MES, but for machine controls as well. For vendors of MES, a resurgence of interest in shop-floor systems couldn't come one nanosecond too soon. "We've been kept out of the boardroom," says Sandy Towle, director of marketing at Camstar Systems Inc., an MES firm in Campbell, Calif. "We're down here in the plant where the rubber meets the road, but we want to be recognized as a source of what's going on down below the carpeted floor." To some manufacturers, though, MES remains a confusing technology that has yet to prove its value as a distinct piece of software. "MES came out in such a variety of flavors, there was mass confusion as to what it was," says Jon Dertinger, systems manager in the mechanical-products division of Eastman Kodak Co., Rochester, N.Y. "From a user perspective companies had trouble quantifying what they would get from MES versus MRP and ERP," Dertinger continues. "We're looking for an MES, but if we had the time, we'd just wait. It looks like the line is graying, and if you can wait a couple of years, you'll probably get an MES as part of your ERP system."