Understanding Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES)
Every manufacturer in every industry vertical uses some sort of manufacturing execution system, or MES. These “systems” collect data and track key productivity vectors to ensure the plant is producing on schedule and to the highest standard of quality. We jokingly say that the most popular MES system stands for “Microsoft Excel Spreadsheet”, as manual data collection is still a popular method.
Almost every manufacturing operation has some level of MES-related “technical debt” they are dealing with. But the industry leaders of tomorrow are taking proactive steps, not reactive. Harnessing the power of software and automation to avoid risks and improve manufacturing efficiency isn’t new, nor is it a system, philosophy, or policy you can implement overnight. The right place to start the voyage is different for every plant, even across the same brand.
This is why choosing the right systems integrator for an MES project is essential. Manufacturers looking to implement cutting edge technology and prepare for future developments need an agnostic partner committed to helping them find the MES solution that is right for their process, goals, and employees. Over the last twenty years, we’ve learned how to help companies find their ideal entry point to the journey that will transform their operations.
Learn more about elements of the journey below, or contact us directly to learn more through conversation.
Knowing Each Manufacturing Plant’s Unique Needs
No two manufacturing facilities are alike, even if they produce the same car parts, coffee creamer, or whatever goes out the door and into the hands of a consumer or user. For manufacturers with more than one facility looking to upgrade their manufacturing execution system (MES), this can seem like a problem. How can such widely different plants provide the same data on the same schedule? Or run using the same software? As we’ve helped nurture smart manufacturing for the last two decades, we’ve learned it’s easier to accept the differences from the beginning. Each manufacturing facility must be viewed as its own architectural ecosystem and maximized according to its own potential. Here are some of the ways manufacturing facilities differ that influence the design and deployment of each MES.
Machinery and Software
In an ideal world, all the machinery in a facility would be updated at once. But, most plants operate piecemeal, replacing machines as needed or when the improvements represent huge savings. Since machinery is so expensive, the “if it’s not broken don’t replace it” philosophy is totally natural. It’s also an essential part of why each facility’s MES must have custom elements and approaches. Different machines might (and probably do) speak different languages and run on different software, even if they do the same thing, and even if they need to talk to each other. Different parts of a process might be automated at one facility and still completed manually at another. Even within a single facility, there’s often wide variety between the machinery and software at work on each line.
Unique Data Points
Because each plant is made up of a unique mix of machines made by a diverse range of manufacturers, figuring out how to gather important data from that crowd takes time and effort. We take our time listening, getting to know the facility, and finding the best point-of-entry for each plant. By observing what data will give us the most essential information and setting a goal to collect it, we help our clients move the needle in stages. Our customers find benefits over time as information becomes more available along the path to total real-time data transparency. As the improvements set in, the needs of each plant will become even more clear.
The Human Element
All this sounds complicated, and it is, but there’s no machine yet more complicated than a human. One essential reason that each plant needs a custom MES is because each plant is staffed by different employees who will have different abilities to react and adapt to these changes. In some cases, continuing education or other legacy processes may need to be established by the company to support employees through the change. It’s usually important to give major changes to procedure time to settle and become routine, especially in situations where documentation or other compliance issues are at play.
It’s important to remember that just as no two manufacturing facilities are identical, no two manufacturing execution systems should be the same. Even trying to govern two similar plants with hybrid versions of a single setup is going to end up doing nothing but sell both facilities short. As manufacturers seek to implement more smart devices and keep up with market demand, it is important to use a little patience in the beginning to find the right approach for each facility. If you’re in need of a partner to help you with strategy or other questions, feel free to contact us at Flexware Innovation.
The Risks of an Outdated or Missing MES
Manufacturing is an industry where the smallest benefit over the competition sets the difference between which plants will be open in two decades and which will be long-forgotten. Today, most are gaining that edge by applying technology to achieve greater efficiency. This is especially true of our clients’ manufacturing execution systems (MES) that coordinate automation and collect important data. If you don’t have an MES, or haven’t updated yours in a while, these risks could be affecting you even today. Here’s what you should know about where they come up and how technology is working to prevent them.
The Blind Spot
It’s an old saying that you don’t know what you don’t know, and it’s stood the test of time because it’s true. However, with an optimized MES, you’ll find you “don’t know” a lot less. Without an MES, plant owners or managers may not be collecting enough information from their environment to keep improving it. Or, they may be collecting the wrong information, and think everything is going smoothly when really something essential has gone unnoticed. These blind spots not only present huge unknown risks to manufacturers, they often only become obvious after the crisis has begun.
The Pot Hole
If you’re from the Midwest, no one has to tell you how jarring it is to hit a pothole, or how much damage they can do. For manufacturers, the “potholes” unseen in the road ahead are things like human error. A crisis like FDA noncompliance or a warranty escape could damage a manufacturer’s business beyond repair, totally unexpectedly. With an up-to-date MES, manufacturers can reduce this risk through checks and balances and automation.
The Slow Leak
Manufacturers who don’t implement or maintain a manufacturing execution system may not experience these dramatic consequences, but there’s also the risk of simply losing the edge. It’s not only about keeping up with your own personal best, it’s also about keeping up with the others in the race. Clients also have a bottom line to consider, and the longest-standing relationship can still give way in the face of pressure from the market.
We’ve described all the reasons you need a manufacturing execution system playing defense, but this technology also benefits your future planning and strategy. One such example is digital twin technology, basically the idea of making a virtual model of your real-world plant. This was named one of Gartner’s Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends last year. When each machine has a digital twin, information about that machine’s performance can be collected in the digital realm and then analyzed to see where there might be potential to improve. Digital twins of products like automobiles, created as they are assembled, will provide valuable manufacturing info long after the product leaves the facility. This represents exciting potential, but those looking to take advantage might feel they are hundreds of steps away from that goal. Before feeling too overwhelmed, why not give us a call?
The Ladder to MES Maturity
The world of manufacturing has changed dramatically thanks to automation. Machines are more effective, more intelligent, and more connected than ever before. Manufacturing companies have more advantages than ever too, especially as they move towards cloud computing and incorporating the Internet of Things (IoT) into their manufacturing execution system, or MES. But the goal of full global automation is a moving target, one that changes with each innovation, and which requires a steady pace to reach. Here are our thoughts on reaching MES maturity, how you can get started, and how to plan for a few steps ahead.
Start with Big Basics
When thinking about implementing automation in a manufacturing facility, the best way to start is by asking where you can start simple and get a good amount of value. Each manufacturing plant is different, so there is no one size fits all starting point. Some plants might reap the most benefits from replacing outdated hardware, while others might see more reward in new software that collects data from existing machines. Essentially, you’ll want to select a starting point where you can move the needle fast and see the effects of your investment over a short amount of time.
Once those initial changes lead to success and your actions begin to demonstrate a return, stop to take stock. Having momentum means you’re already moving in a specific direction, so keep driving forward where it makes the most sense. As processes change, your team also needs a chance to catch up so don’t leave them out of that forward-moving energy. Check in with employees and operators, discuss yields, and be practical about what you’re taking on together.
Change will always happen, whether you’re behind the wheel or not, so you might as well be driving. This trip is like driving at night, on a road you don’t know and can’t always see clearly up ahead. It’s important to remember that sometimes the best-laid plans fail, and while it’s valuable to have a goal, you must be flexible about how you get there. If you expect compromise to be a part of your path to MES maturity, then you’ll be prepared for it when it does happen. You’ll have thought about what you’re willing to give and where requirements for processes or operations might be more strict.
This journey to MES maturity is new for many manufacturing plants. While these changes might feel overwhelming at first, implementing smart technology will help you keep up with market demand like never before. Not to mention, this isn’t a process that plant owners must go through alone. Companies like Flexware Innovation exist to help the manufacturing industry – our industry – reap all the rewards of technological progress. We’ll be your partner in seeking MES maturity; we’ll listen to your needs, and we’ll create a customized strategy.