Are We Making a MES of Information Technology?

June 1, 2011
Manufacturing Execution Systems, known as MES, have long seemed to be a solution in search of a problem. That’s not entirely fair, of course, but many people puzzle over what it is and how to apply it.

On the other hand, Renee Robbins Basset, in her inaugural article as Automation World’s new Managing Editor (“MES/MOM Delivers Power to the People”, p. 30), uncovers the soft underbelly of MES applications—Microsoft Excel. Almost every company has home-grown applications developed in Excel that are extraordinarily difficult to replace.

MES (otherwise known by the designation Manufacturing Operations Management, or MOM, from ISA95, the standard promulgated by the International Society of Automation) probably began with the coupling of early Materials Resource Planning, which became Manufacturing Resource Planning, and vertical industry solutions. Engineers and information technology professionals with deep expertise in such vertical industries as semiconductors or pharmaceutical manufacturing assembled suites of applications to provide methods for more efficient and effective manufacturing.

My introduction to this area, compliments of IBM, was the implementation of an MRP II application in an automotive-type factory. Within two years I was laid off in a massive downturn and I bet the application disappeared pretty quickly. But I learned about many of the components that are still in use today: workflow, labor specifications, material routing, cost accounting, materials management, inventory, tracking for quality and more.

Four major automation systems companies—GE Intelligent Platforms, Invensys Operations Management (originally the Wonderware part of the company), Rockwell Automation and Siemens Industry—all acquired MES companies with the plan to build comprehensive software suites to fulfill the “shop floor to top floor” model that was very much in vogue in the late 1990s. Each company has had some success, but it has come slowly and not without some pain.

We know that MOM applications have the ability for tremendous benefit to manufacturers and producers. Automation World has published many stories showing how these applications have provided financial benefits to companies. But somehow modern advances just cannot seem to supplant those home-grown systems. Whether it is fear of another year of pain similar to that experienced when implementing a monolithic enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, or not enough engineers to work on the systems, change is occurring slowly.

One of the key events that will bring change is company acquisition. These older systems work well for one company. When two or more companies join, though, suddenly the problems of getting information in a consistent manner multiply. I expect MES/MOM applications to continue to grow because they serve a real need. The shape of the future remains to be seen, but the functions will need to be done.

Self development

Speaking of gaining benefits, I’m always looking for ways to live better, work better, become more efficient and effective and manage my time better. I recently attended a seminar where former Mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani spoke. I’ve heard him before, and there are few better speakers on leadership. He spoke on four things you should do for personal development that will make you a more effective leader and person.

First, you should read books. Read one book for fun and one to grow. You need to do this to help you develop your own ideas. Next, you should become a listener. You’ll learn new things by listening to others, and you’ll expand your personal contact list at the same time. Make notes and write down clear goals. He remembered U.S. President Ronald Reagan as a leader where, if you worked for him, you knew exactly his goals and what you should be doing. Finally, slow down and take time to think. Even if you only set aside five minutes, it will be time well spent. 

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