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  • By Patricia Panchak
  • Automation IT
The state of MES in the age of smart manufacturing
MES is now (or should be) viewed as a foundational enabler of manufacturing's digital transformation

By Patricia Panchak

As we have talked about MES through the years, we have been all over the map. Even now, if you ask half a dozen people the definition of a manufacturing execution system (MES), you will likely get six different answers. As we enter manufacturing's digital age, however, MES-or at least many MES capabilities-are increasingly recognized as critical components in a company's smart manufacturing journey.

"I think we're moving into the golden age of MES," asserts John Clemons, director of manufacturing IT at MAVERICK Technologies, acknowledging that he, and the others on the MESA International board, have been predicting it for "the last 30 years." He explains there are three reasons the turning point is at hand:

Maturity: In terms of tools and technologies, the MES products have become "better fits" for the market, and much more reliable.

Technology synergy: As multiple technologies converge, creating new possibilities for digital manufacturing, MES is being recognized as an important component. When combined with other technologies-cloud, Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), data analytics, sensors, etc.-MES delivers more powerful benefits than ever before.

Better understanding: Manufacturers have gained a better understanding of the benefits of MES and, more importantly, are seeing that many of the benefits of MES remain untapped.

MESA President Mike Yost also notes that the more recent conversations about smart manufacturing, which relies on digital data and information, have played a key role. "It's sharpening the focus on what we've been doing for three decades," he says.

This resurgence in interest in MES is borne out in recent research that MESA conducted in partnership with LNS Research. Andrew C. Hughes, LNS principle analyst, said in a presentation at MESA's annual North American conference, "We're talking to quite a lot of companies that are thinking of implementing MES for the first time simply because they've realized that manufacturing data has to be part of their business." Companies that are trying to become more digital in the next two to three years-however they define that-are saying that MES is becoming a strategic part of that effort, he added.

Smart manufacturing connection

Still, "within manufacturing there's the sense we've been doing this forever," Clemons says, referring to the digital monitoring and control of plant floor processes. In a way, the concept of "smart manufacturing" is a misnomer, he says. "We've always been doing smart manufacturing; we haven't been doing dumb manufacturing," Clemons asserts. "From the very beginning MES has always been smart manufacturing, because it's always been about solving real problems on the factory floor."

Many manufacturers, he argues, started their smart manufacturing journey years ago-before we even called it smart manufacturing-by implementing MES or manufacturing operations management systems. For good measure, he points out that one could argue that the evolution of digital manufacturing can be traced back further, to computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM), or even further to the introduction of programmable logic controllers (PLCs) on the factory floor.

Much of the debate about MES' role in smart manufacturing revolves around attempts to describe the new technologies, which can be difficult considering all the constituencies. MES is broadly and hierarchically understood to be the "middle layer" in the technology stack, between plant-level process controls, such as PLCs, distributed control systems, and supervisory control and data acquisition, and the business systems, such as enterprise resource planning (ERP).

As MES technology has evolved, the boundaries between those layers have shifted. Many vendors seeking differentiation incorporated capabilities that were not originally part of MES. At the same time, other vendors offered vertical systems, such as those focused on quality, while insisting that these applications are something different from MES.

"I tell everybody there are many different ways to do anything you want in the MES space, and any given product that you buy overlaps with a dozen other products," Clemons says. For example, a manufacturer can buy a quality application, or can obtain quality components by buying a broader solution from Siemens, Rockwell, or SAP. Also, most of the control systems claim to offer quality components.

For the record, MESA's view is that "MES is not really intended to be any particular software solution; in most cases it's not even a single solution," Clemons explains. "In the broadest definition, MES is any kind of operational system that allows you to run the manufacturing plant from receiving to shipping." That includes "intelligence, reporting and analytics, and touching into supply chain and other areas," Yost adds.

This conversation about what MES is and does may seem academic, but it sits at the crux of understanding the future of smart manufacturing.

One company's realization

That is what Trelleborg AB discovered as it launched its "production intelligence" (PI or π) initiative. (The company adopted "PI" as an umbrella term, otherwise known as smart manufacturing, Industry 4.0, or IIoT.)

Speaking at the recent MESA NA conference, Tomas Norbut, project manager of IT infrastructure and services at Trelleborg, said he discovered a disconnect in how the manufacturing and information technology (IT) departments perceived company readiness to embark on a digital transformation. The operations technology (OT) professionals running manufacturing thought it was ready, while IT determined it was not.

The difference of opinion, as he described it, was as follows: "Your processes could be very, very mature, but the abilities to digitize those processes can be very, very immature." That is not a knock against OT, he added, "We have a very well laid out manufacturing program, and they are very well invested within each of the [factories], and they were starting to shape the journey for PI." However, he said that while they had very clear concepts of the manufacturing world, they were unknowingly relying on buzzwords when they discussed digitization.

To "get everyone on the same page," Norbut first collaboratively worked to establish a common vocabulary, and to categorize and create a maturity model around the concepts, so everyone was speaking the same language. The next step was to survey the facilities based on that common understanding.

Significantly, survey results indicated that 57 percent of the companies' machines were MES ready. "I'm using MES as a catch-all term, because it can mean a lot of things to people," Norbut said. "But from a perspective of being able to connect your machine, gather data off of it, and dump it into some sort of system, that's what we categorized as 'MES ready.'"

The company will continue with this definition, even as it harmonizes MES capabilities across the company's 120 facilities, which have deployed various MES capabilities. "I don't envision one central stack," Norbut said. "I do envision some common functions and standardized features." Trelleborg will focus on "developing a common set of standards around what the data need to look like and how the data need to work."

MES as a foundation

Other companies say MES is a foundational element of their smart or digital manufacturing initiatives. Andrzej Goryca, senior enterprise systems manager at Virgin Orbit, one of the Virgin Atlantic companies founded by Sir Richard Branson, ascribes to this view.

The vertically integrated company builds rockets that launch small satellites into low-earth orbit. As a relatively young company-it has built about half a dozen rockets, so far-its goal is to design, build, and launch the rockets, while "at the same time we're striving to design, build, and launch our business," Goryca said. Its specific focus is on "getting us ready to build at rate and be able to support all the operations at rate."

"So with that vision and those goals, we are focused around creating digital threads-being able to digitize that whole chain, all the way from a launch event, which is our key event, and back all the way through test, integration, manufacturing, design, and all the way to the original requirements that drove how the vehicle should perform."

He explained where MES fits into the strategy to achieve this at the recent MESA NA conference. Put simply, he said, "MES is an enabler" of:

Digital records: "In our industry, you launch a vehicle and you have one chance; there's no plan B," Goryca said. "Proper controls are essential, so we'd rather not do it on paper; we'd rather have an additional record of it."

Cost analysis: As the company scales from building one rocket at a time to building to scale, it is important to understand how to do so while generating positive margin. Capturing, analyzing, and trending cost data for each build is crucial to this effort.

Repeatable processes: On the way to scale, MES helps the company identify and replicate what works, as well as controlling and revising what does not.

Better decision making: MES collects and analyzes the data, turning data into information, which help the "human in the loop" to make better decisions more quickly.

Ultimately, "we want to make sure we have the right systems for the right tasks," Goryca said, echoing Clemons' point by noting the plethora of potentially redundant applications. "We have a vision of one system, one user-to simplify and have everyone provided with the right tool to do their job."

Summing up, Goryca said the company plans on having MES in the manufacturing and quality space; ERP for planning in the supply chain, purchasing, procurement, and finance areas; and product life-cycle management and a few other systems in design engineering. Still, he asserted, "What's important is that they have to be connected in that digital thread."

Quantum leap or business as usual?

The varying views about MES explain some differences in how manufacturers view smart manufacturing, whether as the next step in an ever-evolving continuous improvement effort or as a strategic transformation.

The simple answer is both, according to recent research conducted by MESA and IndustryWeek to determine prevailing views about smart manufacturing. Their survey found that 43 percent of respondents see smart manufacturing as an extension of their continuous improvement/innovation/lean initiatives, while 24 percent view it as a transformation strategy or new business model. A third of respondents said that it was not clearly one or the other.

For MESA's part, it is choosing to let industry tell what smart manufacturing is. However, even as Clemons and Yost assert they have been doing smart manufacturing-i.e., they have been connecting machines and gathering data from them for decades-they recognize smart manufacturing as disruptive innovation.

"This is the biggest catalyst for new possibilities that I've seen in my 30 years in manufacturing," Yost says. Though it is in some ways an extension of business as usual-the next step in continuous improvement or evolution of MES, "It's the opportunity to achieve a quantum leap."

The big caution, he advises, is to avoid the hype that is associated with the idea of smart manufacturing and taking that quantum leap: "If you don't know how to buy this stuff, if you don't know how to talk with vendors about what your business plans are and how to align the technologies to what your needs are, you're going to be pulled toward that shiny new coin, the shiny object, and you're going to be disappointed."

Understanding MES and smart manufacturing

Critical to understanding MES' role-or any other technology's role-in smart manufacturing, is that none of them are commodities. They cannot simply be plugged into an existing process to get immediate benefits-or, for that matter, to get them to work at all.

This is especially true about MES, according to Clemons. "MES is one of those solutions that you only get out of it what you put into it," he says. "If you think you're going to take delivery of MES and all your problems will be solved, that's not going to happen. That's a recipe for disaster."

He adds, "You've got to understand your operations; you've got to figure out what you need and the way you need to do it. If you're not doing it right, then dropping MES or anything else on top of it isn't going to make it better; it's probably going to make it worse."

It turns out, Clemons says, asserting MESA's long held point of view, that the adoption of MES or smart manufacturing is not as much about the technology as it is about people. It is not about figuring out what technologies to use and integrate. Rather it is about thinking through how your operation works and how to align people and technologies with that to achieve increasingly better results.

That means the obstacles to implementing MES or any smart manufacturing solution reside in the people, not the technology. "Manufacturers aren't used to buying technology solutions like this that aren't necessarily capital focused," Yost asserts. "So you can end up where the quality department will buy a quality solution; the maintenance department will buy a maintenance solution-the buying behaviors are set up in a very siloed way." This traditional way of operating as buyers and sellers causes difficulties in investing in solutions that, by definition, are about integrating and connecting across functional boundaries.

"Somebody has to be committed to saying, 'we're going to stop this fight,'" Yost says. "We're going to agree on metrics; we're going to adjust the way we pay people, so they don't have an incentive to protect 'their' data and metrics. We're going to be this boundary-less, tech-savvy organization."

This "people problem" extends to what has become known as the "IT-OT disconnect," which sums up the difficulty manufacturers have had in determining which group of professionals should lead their smart manufacturing initiatives. To this, Yost asserts MESA's view that the functional leaders who run your facilities-quality and maintenance leaders and plant managers-must be integral to the effort. "Taking those manufacturing people out of smart manufacturing decisions, that's a death knell," Yost says.

"We need to address those issues of how we work together, and how we work in our own departments, buy things and plan for technology," he adds. "You can't let the technology be the driver. The technologies are getting more and more capable all the time, but they still have to be the servants to the business leaders and business drivers."

That said, manufacturers need technology solutions to facilitate the gathering and analysis of data, and "MES-or at least elements of it-is that foundational solution, that core piece of the solution, whether it's called MES or not," Yost says. He acknowledges that some people would argue they do not need an MES as part of their smart manufacturing initiative, but counters that those people "are probably putting systems in place that we at MESA would put under an umbrella as being MES."

As real-time data collection, integration, and analysis continue to become more critical to manufacturing business success, MES continues to evolve to address the challenge-and to become more integral to an overall smart manufacturing transformation. Capabilities like MES in the cloud, MES as service, and mobile MES are becoming standard. ID technologies-whether 2D or 3D bar codes, RFID, or GPS-are coming together as part of MES solutions. Likewise, sensors are becoming smart devices, further expanding capabilities and benefits of MES and helping manufacturing operations become more responsive to the marketplace and to the business.

Put simply: MES has become a foundational element of smart manufacturing. Virgin Orbit-or any company-cannot create its digital thread or complete its smart manufacturing transformation without it.

All of this leads Clemons to conclude, "The state of MES is better than it has ever been, and I think the next 20 years are going to be pretty spectacular for MES."

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About The Authors

Patricia Panchak, a MESA contributing writer, is an independent business and technology journalist, editor, and public speaker.