For decades, companies have grappled with the question of when and how to embark on a manufacturing execution system (MES) implementation. Is there a business case? Can I afford to put my key people onto a two-year project? How will we maintain the system? Now with the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) firmly in the spotlight, should I forget about MES and concentrate my efforts on this new technology?
Well, in this author’s opinion, the answer to all of these questions is: It depends!
I write this article as active member of the Manufacturing Enterprise Solutions Association (MESA). The ‘E’ here is very important. Yes, MESA has been an advocate for MES since its conception more than 30 years ago; but MESA is not just about MES. Rather MESA focuses on applying information technology (IT) offerings to manufacturing that generate payback.
A review of the latest publications on MESA’s website will reveal dozens of articles promoting smart manufacturing, Industry 4.0, and IIoT, along with MES. MESA white paper #52, titled “Smart Manufacturing – The Landscape Explained,” is a good example. This paper presents a roadmap for Smart Manufacturing, where IIoT definitely has a role along with other enterprise solutions such as digital thread, integration services, and business process workflows. MES is not specifically called out, but a number of the functionalities that make up the components are.
So what are the factors to consider when deciding between MES and IIoT?
It depends on the scope of your manufacturing IT initiative. If the scope is limited to just one or two functions such as data collection and dashboarding then, yes, IIoT alone could suffice. But if you need to marry business rules and integrations to other enterprise systems, then MES will win out.
Ultimately, it depends on your existing landscape of systems. If no investment has been made into MES, then IIoT offers a platform that can generate quick paybacks without major disruption to the existing manufacturing processes. However, if your company has already invested in MES, removing it will be very disruptive and achieving the status quo with IIoT could be very difficult.
IIoT perhaps can be used to harmonize existing disconnected offerings across plants. As an example of how this can be done, consider that IIoT manufacturing service bus technologies exist that can integrate with existing enterprise offerings and apply interoperable communications, turning silos of data into actionable information that can be scrutinized by cloud services.
The level of regulations impacting your industry sector is another important factor. Today IIoT offerings lack the test of time, whereas MES offerings have been put through the most stringent regulatory audits and emerged as shining lights in companies’ manufacturing operations management. In addition, MES offerings have evolved by industry sector, and the knowledge and best practices of customers has been built into these offerings. A number of MES vendors even offer validation packs in conjunction with their latest releases.
Being the new kid on the block, IIoT is still evolving—although rapidly—due to the agile nature of the technology as well as how the software is developed and deployed. As someone very experienced with MES capabilities, I think it would be interesting to see if any IIoT software vendor could demonstrate a computer software validation (CSV) and associated quality management system (QMS) that would stand up to the rigors of a highly regulated supplier quality audit like MES.
If complex workflows, interoperability, a regulated environment, or a disparate existing landscape (e.g., a need to promote standardization) are requirements for your company, then MES will continue to play a pivotal role in your enterprise systems roadmap. If, however, you are looking for simple integration solutions or have a greenfield site with simple workflows, then maybe MES is dead and IIoT has arrived for you. Again, it all depends on your specific circumstances.
The operational process knowledge automated into MES solutions will be difficult to replicate into new IIoT solutions. IIoT will, of course, continue to evolve and mature, but whether it will replace MES fully is unlikely. It is more likely these solutions will collaborate in the future and expedite business benefits for both platforms by working together.
>>Desmond Savage, Board member MESA EMEA, Chair of MESA Ireland Special Interest Group (SIG), Certified MESA Instructor, firstname.lastname@example.org, is a freelance Manufacturing IT Consultant with over 20 years’ experience across several industry sectors but concentrated primarily on regulated industries, namely: Med Device, Pharma, and Food and Beverage. He has been an active member of MESA since 2011 and is qualified with a Masters in Advanced Manufacturing from the University of Limerick, Ireland.