Step One in MES Modernization: An Integration Plan

Aug. 19, 2016
Fit-for-purpose software applications can enable manufacturers to connect operations, IT and enterprise more easily. An integration will help make sure the pieces eventually connect.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is turning traditional homes into high-tech havens. The most successful solutions allow consumers to start small. For instance, vendors offer lighting systems controlled remotely via your smartphone. As a separate package, they might offer a smoke detector that integrates with the lighting system, so lights flash to visually alert you of a fire.

When purchased separately, these compatible components can be obtained for only a couple hundred dollars each. Once you start to see the value of your initial investment and have more money to spend, you can often easily integrate them into your home’s digital platform.

That same basic principle is now applicable for a manufacturing execution system (MES). New, fit-for-purpose software applications are available that allow users to begin connecting their plant floor or operations technology (OT) with their information technology (IT) and enterprise systems for less than a fraction of the cost of a comprehensive MES.

Fit-for-purpose solutions can fill a gap for users that do not have large MES infrastructures, but need to improve areas from quality to yield to cost.

Before you begin building an MES one application at a time, you must have an integration plan in place to ensure that all the pieces will eventually connect. The benefits increase exponentially once fit-for-purpose systems are talking to each other and utilizing data across systems.

Silos vs. boiling the ocean

The introduction of low-cost computers and the ability to deploy digital systems for manufacturing led to new efficiencies in the 1990s. In the beginning, however, system designers did not pay heed to the future importance of integration. Because of this, many production operations today struggle with legacy applications that cannot easily talk to each other, creating communications silos.

To topple that barrier over the past 15 years, companies have implemented single software solutions horizontally across manufacturing lines, or have paid small fortunes to integrate disparate systems. Though the approach has streamlined production, the cost has proven substantial, especially for smaller manufacturers. Now, truly embracing the essence of the IoT movement, producers can take a modular approach to connecting enterprises.

Step-by-step solutions

Applying MES applications in a step-by-step fashion keeps the door open for growth if a company wishes to expand into other solutions. Expansion, however, requires that a company have a plan and a platform that enables integration. After all, a project that starts small is easier to justify to management. The results are apparent when applied to specific MES functions—leading to concrete evidence that highlights increased efficiency.

Take, for example, a quality-management application. Instead of modeling and applying a proof-of-concept solution thinly across an MES, a modular, quality-management application can be rolled out for specific, quality data collection and elimination of paper-based reporting.

A key first step in your standardization plan is selecting products and vendors that comply with standards, such as ISA95. This will allow you to pick functionality from different vendors and ease future integration efforts. Just know that cross-vendor integration will never be as smooth as single-vendor integration.

The next step to consider is system design. For example, if you add a production management application to a system that already has quality management, you can pull data from several systems to improve operational procedures without the cost of additional data collection. Start with applications that share similar context for the best insights.

Manufacturing is moving into a new age. Quality and efficiency are improving as a result of capturing and using valuable data. Though the task of connecting systems seems daunting, there is now a simple starting point with an application-based approach. Before you jump in, have a plan in place. Your foresight will save you headaches in the future.

>>Keith McPherson is an Americas board member at large for MESA International. He has more than 25 years of experience in the automation and information industry, in sales, marketing and business development as well as engineering positions. He also serves as global market development director of information management for Rockwell Automation.

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