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The Value of Thin Slicing an MES Implementation

There are many variables that can drive an organization to investigate the viability of implementing a manufacturing execution system (MES). One of the more important things that can be overlooked in the effort to evaluate an MES plan is the value of a proof of concept strategy.

Brian Briggs of Avid Solutions Inc.
Brian Briggs of Avid Solutions Inc.

Many companies are tempted to focus on the whole MES picture when it comes to connectivity between plant floor and enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, or the evaluation and definition of processes, material flows, and quality strategies. The problem with this approach is that attempting to map out and design a comprehensive solution from square one often leads to a spiral of scope change, redesign, enhancements, and retrofits as you start to roll out the solution across multiple locations.

By spending the time and money up front to fully understand the variables involved with your particular situation, your MES implementation will benefit dramatically.

Here are several things to consider before you begin:

  • When considering manufacturing processes across plants, are there unique products or processes that will be considered outliers to the core functionality? How will they be addressed and when?
  • What systems currently in use at each manufacturing facility will be replaced by your MES? Are there any unique systems or applications that need to be addressed?
  • Are there localized state, county and/or city regulations that will govern the operation of your MES at various locations?
  • What are the assumptions about your plant work force that need to be validated, such as computer literacy or process knowledge for example?
  • A single plant, area, or line implementation can help you design and roll out a more comprehensive solution and limit cost and complexity during further, wide reaching implementations.

While working with a client to implement a comprehensive MES solution integrated with SAP software and encompassing multiple sites, we found that performing comprehensive process mapping at each site prior to the design phase allowed us to identify not only the core functions required across all plants, but also to plan for and adopt design considerations for processes that would not be active in the solution until several facilities were already online.

After the initial design and build, an implementation was performed at a single site and the solution was given several months to function during normal operation.

By taking this step, we were able to make some significant changes based on real world observations of the impact on operators, plant management, and the solution itself.

One of the significant design considerations that underwent an overhaul during this process was the re-organization of data storage. The initial strategy for storing manually ascribed data was to use out-of-the-box methods provided by the software vendor. This system used a generic table structure to store this type of data and relied heavily on keys and look-ups. During the pilot phase, various departments and users experienced difficulty using this data. After some additional design sessions, the client agreed that a method incorporating standardized custom tables would offer the support they required, while also allowing for enough flexibility to accommodate all users.

Other modifications identified during the pilot phase included:

  • Inventory scrap was changed to incorporate a reason code sent as part of the consumption record.
  • Sample label printing details were dialed in and made automatic based on product testing requirements.
  • Many updates were made to the method used for shop floor communication between supervisors and operators.

This activity did not completely halt the addition of enhancements and scope change as the solution matured during the rollout, but it did help to reduce the number and overall impact of those changes.

Brian Briggs is a consultant with Avid Solutions Inc. Avid Solutions Inc. is a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Avid Solutions, visit their profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

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