1 June 2005
The practical side of MES
By Martin W. Michael
The introduction of computer databases, the Internet, Ethernet networking, Distributed Control Systems (DCS), Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES), and other such technologies provide choices on how to run a manufacturing plant.
However, a $1 million investment in advanced data management systems will often provide you with more data than you know what to do with. Most of us can barely keep up with our own e-mail accounts, let alone manage information from 1,000 data points across a complex manufacturing line.
Most manufacturers are trying to solve basic problems of productivity, efficiency, loss prevention, quality control, and maintenance effectiveness. You don't necessarily need a sophisticated software solution from SAP or PeopleSoft to accomplish this. You do need, however, to be able to rapidly pilot and implement a reasonably priced system that can provide the information you need today. In addition, perhaps you would like the ability to scale where you think you may want to be in the future.
Million dollar software solutions can do this, but they often take years to install and configure. A more realistic solution is a phased process.
This process is about applying data collection and management capabilities to "your" manufacturing process. This is an important distinction from implementing a large and expensive manufacturing execution software platform. With large software solutions, you often must change your process to fit the software, or you may need to spend a small fortune modifying the software to fit your process.
This process is about implementing software components that address only the needs you have today, but that will still serve as building blocks for the new requirements you may have in the future.
You know your process, and this system is about improving your process—not changing it.
Engineers trained in manufacturing process and data management work with factory managers to identify the business requirements and assist in setting immediate priorities. Most manufacturers can implement inexpensive and simple data management modules that allow a rapid return on investment. At the same time, the engineers will map your requirements to "Best in Class" applications, including larger enterprise solutions.
The play made simple
Step 1—Define the factory business requirements in terms of data needs, assessment of the difficulty in achieving the data, and the ability to act on the data you will ultimately compile.
Step 2—Establish priorities and identify areas where a rapid implementation can provide an immediate business return on investment.
Step 3—Implement technology that will enable the collection of critical data from various points across your production line. (If the plant has a modern automated production line, this is normally a simple matter of collecting data from the existing PLC systems. If not, you can collect data by installing a series of sensors or other data collection devices.)
Step 4—Provide the data to the different factory managers in a format that empowers them to achieve their business goals. This can be as simple as a printed report, an interactive Web-based computer interface, or a more robust manufacturing management application.
Step 5—Utilize the requirements gathered from Step 1 and the data gathered from the subsequent steps to create and implement a long-term strategy.
Scaling the system
The phased approach is a simple and cost-effective way to begin collecting data about an active production line. The use of an open, modular, and Web-based infrastructure assures the plant will retain the majority of its initial investment. Even if the plant manager is waiting for corporate to decide on a long term MES implementation, the approach practically guarantees the solution will be reusable in the enterprise long term.
What is the cost of 30 minutes of production downtime? What is the production efficiency of your line today? What component constitutes the biggest production bottleneck? How much money will you lose over the next 12 months waiting for an implementation of the "perfect" MES solution?
The core premise of this approach is you cannot improve production if you cannot identify the problem. Measure the problem and setting priorities helps your system evolve into a long-term manufacturing platform. It provides "actionable" information—information that will empower you to make improvements to your line. That enhances your ability to meet your business objectives.
Behind the byline
Martin W. Michael is a vice president of Advanced Automation Associates, Inc. (A3), an Exton, Pa.-based system integrator. A3 is a founding member of the Control and Information System Integrators Association. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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