Manufacturers are Refocusing on MES, and for Good Reasons

John Vargo, Director Manufacturing Execution Systems, RoviSys

Over the last 10 years of my career, I have observed massive changes in the technologies and tactics that make up the Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) and Manufacturing Operations Management (MOM) landscape. Of course, technology has advanced and changed rapidly. From rise of industrial cloud computing to cyber security as a priority to secure and open-protocol communications, and edge computing and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), hundreds of new solutions have been developed that promise to solve manufacturing operations challenges. With the emergence of Industry 4.0 and the convergence of traditional white-space IT with shop-floor Operational Technology (OT), the changes are not only related to technology. Project owners were once mostly engineering teams but are now often the IT organizations as they began to support the manufacturing floor. During this time, MES seemed to lose favor in the market. It would be difficult to recognize this transformed environment looking at it through a 2010 lens.

Of the organizations that evaluated the new concepts, some tested the waters with small projects or technology pilots. A few bold organizations embraced change and rolled out solutions across their manufacturing network. Teams that succeeded typically achieved visibility and control over manufacturing performance, and a few are now able to pivot to changing market demands and supply chain constraints.

While success stories are out there, there were plenty of scary stories. Trade events and conferences included sessions focused on the risks, including troubled pilots, costly and duplicated investments, scalability challenges, and poor adoption. To me, the open sharing of this real-world perspective marked the beginning of a notable shift from the preliminary hype to more realistic views of the cutting edge solutions. Catchy ads surrounding Industry 4.0 and Digital Manufacturing that held the attention of prime time viewers quickly faded away. Software vendors reinvested to refresh core platforms and legacy products, while incorporating cloud, IIoT and other technologies to enable new capabilities.

Throughout all of this, the industrial and manufacturing challenges have remained steady. Availability of assets and resources, efficiency of production, and quality of the process continue to be fundamental metrics and drivers for operational excellence. Perhaps the urgency has increased as the risks of a retiring labor force draw closer and organizations with integrated supply chain information raise competitive pressures. But the fact that goods need to be produced at the shop-floor means that manufacturing data is a key component to making better decisions on both sides of the supply chain.

So, what will happen next? I think of it as the revival of MES. This shift is characterized in two main ways: a realization of the new technology limitations and the recognition of the fundamental benefits of MES/MOM.

First, the factors I believe are driving the realization that the technology innovations are only a piece of digital transformation:

No Silver Bullets

Companies recognize that IoT and cloud are not magic. Those who still do not have reliable networking and basic electronic data collection, and many who have tried to short cut this step and stumbled are now making smart investments here first, while realizing benefits of improved manufacturing visibility.

Impractical User Experiences and Dependencies

Augmented reality currently relies on costly headgear or taking up an extra hand with a tablet. Advanced analytics, ML, and AI typically require large, pre-existing, and clean data sets for all but the most common of use cases. IIoT sensors and instrumentation still need a reliable and secure network to talk to the cloud and have not yet matured to measure enough manufacturing and process variables to displace traditional shop-floor instrumentation.

Long-Term Platform

Limitations IIoT has spawned many companies offering niche applications that address specific and complex use cases with short ROI periods. However, once the benefit is realized, what do you do next? If a solution is bespoke to a limited set of operational challenges, you risk customizing it beyond its capabilities, or searching for other solutions for your next initiative. This could lead to maintenance costs of the individual solutions outweighing the ongoing benefit.

Limited Out-Of-The-Box Capability

On the other end, platforms providing wide-open, build-your-own toolkits can lead to roadblocks. Although initial use cases can realize value quickly, scaling the platforms to the next use cases often requires more investment than the incremental enhancements that traditional platforms enable as part of standard features. These factors have led manufacturers to refocus on the second driver of the revival of MES: the recognition of the fundamental value of managing shop floor execution, and the benefits it offers long-term.

• MES is defined for Manufacturing. MES solutions have proven value propositions and are often able to extend beyond initial intention to address broader operational challenges. MES platforms have gained a stigma of being heavy and overweight. While this may be true in cases, there are increasingly more nimble offerings with broader built-in capability challenging this paradigm.

• MES enables analytics. MES Solutions inherently generate context. The more integrated the solution is with shop floor machine and process data, the better the associations. Machine learning models love context, so this step is an investment toward applying ML and AI.

• MES feeds the digital transformation cycle. MES records production counts and waste, detects and categorizes asset deficiencies and downtimes, captures performance against schedule, integrates quality with production records--all effectively in real-time. These are all critical data points for understanding capacity and constraints. When integrated with the appropriate business systems, digitally connected supply chain strategies can finally become a reality.

The manufacturing systems technology space has seen remarkable change. As manufacturers explored new technologies, some achieved success early, while others encountered challenges. A shift in perspective amongst manufacturers and vendors triggered a transition from hyped promise to practical value propositions. Organizations began to see cloud and IIoT as tools to increase the potential value of traditional MES and MOM software platforms rather than wholesale replace them. As manufacturers continue to pursue Industry 4.0 initiatives, there has been a refocus back to the fundamentals of shop-floor manufacturing execution systems because they not only solve operational challenges, they enable advanced analytics and supply chain management strategies. The next 10 years will likely bring additional changes at an even faster pace, but my bet is that MES will be there to keeping manufacturers going strong.

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