Compliance issues have caused more than a few "Maalox moments" for manufacturers. However necessary they may be, the reality is that regulations force manufacturers to allocate valuable resources and time to track, monitor and record plant-level data. Gaining such transparency into plant-floor operations can be aided by a manufacturing execution system (MES).
MES is designed to link operations-level data with an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. In doing so, manufacturers are able to eliminate time-consuming paper-based reporting systems. Even so, most manufacturers don't appear to be taking advantage of the opportunity. A 2006 study by IT research firm Industry Directions Inc. shows only about one-third of 21 medical device companies surveyed utilize MES, despite the industry's need to track and trace products for compliance.
"Medical device manufacturers have an opportunity to grow at a nearly unlimited rate, but most are stymied by a lack of speedy, accurate information from their production processes," notes Julie Fraser, Industry Directions' lead research analyst. "As a result, the market cap for these companies does not look nearly as healthy as their profit margins suggest they should." The 2006 IndustryWeek/MPI Census of Manufacturers backs the Industry Directions' study, showing that only 8.9% of 766 firms responding are using MES.
One reason why manufacturers may be shying away from MES is because ERP and automation vendors already offer some MES functionality, says Joe Barkai, program director for discrete manufacturing research at Manufacturing Insights, a research firm. Barkai also cites a lack of highly refined data from MES as another hurdle for MES vendors. "Many systems collect data only at intervals that are often influenced by the takt time of manufacturing," Barkai notes. This often results in missed lower-level data that aren't as critical but could add up by the day's end, he adds.
Regardless, manufacturers are reporting some success with MES. For instance, Hawker de Havilland, a wholly owned subsidiary of The Boeing Co. based in Port Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, has eliminated 500 separate internal work orders required to complete a single Boeing 787 airplane by deploying a Visiprise MES, according to Jonathan Heasman, 787 manufacturing systems integration project manager for Hawker de Havilland. "Previously, everything would be completed and hand-archived and hand-processed at the back end, including inventory management, and nothing was actually real time," Heasman relates.
The company expects the system will reduce legacy planning cycle times on the 787 by 70%. Hawker de Havilland implemented the system in June 2005 specifically for the building of the 787 at its Melbourne and Sydney locations. But the company is looking into extending the solution to other product lines, including such brands as Airbus and Lockheed Martin, Heasman says.