Dispelling the Myths of MES

Technology is changing the way manufacturing execution system (MES) software is applied. Yet several myths continue to survive in the face of this technology advance. MES is a set of solutions that provide manufacturing support and interface to enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications.

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The first myth is that the ERP system will handle all the MES functions. In fact, ERP systems were not designed to handle the real-time, process-data-intensive world that characterizes an execution system. ERP can be modified to address it, albeit in a very limited fashion, but not elegantly, effectively or cheaply. The truth is, combining even a thin layer of MES with your enterprise resource or advanced planning systems creates a synergy that drives above-average systems performance and return on investment (ROI) across the board.

Next is the myth that shop-floor systems accomplish MES tasks. The reality is that you have an MES already. It may be manual, sneakernet or cobbled together with “spit and bailing wire,” but everyone has to have a method to manage manufacturing processes. The real question is whether or not your system automatically delivers manufacturing process visibility. Does it tie and correlate product, process and quality information together and interface with business planning/enterprise solutions? Does it enforce Good Manufacturing Processes? Ensure fulfillment accuracy? Automate data collection? Provide real-time, reliable data for management decisions?

Change culture

Thinking that new technology is the key to successful MES is the third myth. It is true that new tools and standards simplify design and maintenance of MES solutions. The main reasons that manufacturing execution systems fail are cultural and operational—not technical. Plant operational staff needs to understand how these tools help them achieve the work objectives and company goals. Technical staff must recognize the dynamic nature of an MES solution.

The fourth myth holds that MES is an out-of-the-box, a la carte solution. While the industry is heading that way, it’s not there yet. For a long time, MES products were basically pure tool kits, made up of a database schema and a transaction application with configuration tools for design and maintenance. That typically meant a solution that was 20 percent to 30 percent vanilla, and 70 percent to 80 percent custom. The state-of-the-art has moved a long way from that scenario, and now there is a much higher degree of out-of-the box functionality in most software. In batch, continuous or discrete industries, the common production and business processes, terminology and data models found their way into vendors’ software products.

There has been a more coordinated offering of MES solution components, from both a functional and vertical industry standpoint. And product maturation has significantly tilted the balance to product configuration rather than customization. Nonetheless, these are mission-critical systems that require extensive integration to achieve their full potential.

Myth number five maintains that MES will not impact current business practices. Actually, the MES layer can be deployed in an isolated manner with minimal interaction with business and planning systems. But the reality is that these systems are starving for want of real-time and accurate product, process and quality information. So, you’d really want the MES to impact your business practices.

Finally, some believe that they can save money bypassing the overhead tasks. MES applications have proven to provide some of the best returns of any information technology system investment—but only when correctly implemented. Cutting key overhead activities such as project management, detailed operational design, documentation and training is a major mistake that is sure to haunt you in the future. Skipping a formal design phase won’t necessarily mean project failure, but it almost always pays for itself many times over on overall project cost savings.

Matt Bauer, mjbauer@ra.rockwell.com, is Chairman of MESA International, and Director of Information Solutions Marketing at Rockwell Automation Inc. For more information on MESA, visit www.mesa.org.
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