Is Digitalization Different From MES? (Part 2)

Feb. 8, 2018
Part 1 of this discussion focused on how a good old-fashioned manufacturing execution system is still an effective way to enable a digital initiative. Here, we address some comments and concerns prompted from the first part.

When a couple of months ago I wrote of MES and digitalization, I was not expecting to receive so much feedback. It was a real surprise to read comments and ideas from people around the world—consultants, end users and other system integrators. I probably touched on a sensitive topic.

Over the past several months, I have been doing a lot of talking and writing about the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), digital technologies and digital transformation. Perhaps it created some confusion and people need more clarity. Or maybe people are eager go back to the better-known fundamentals. Or maybe the feeling is that we are forced to move to the next stage before we have completed or consolidated the previous one. Whatever the case, I’ve been compelled to get back to the discussion, taking inspiration from some comments to try to clarify the situation better.

The main point in the previous article was that achieving digitalization does not require implementation of all the new technologies we hear people talking about. Old-style implementation of a manufacturing execution system (MES) or manufacturing operations management (MOM) system is still a good and effective way to enable a digital initiative.

Of course, the best approach in any of these initiatives starts with a thorough business process review. Those business processes and how people work are the most impacted aspects of any IT initiative in operations. This is true for a standard MES and even more true for digitalization. The possibility to digitally share information along the whole value chain and to connect all the processes requires that the processes themselves are reviewed accordingly.

One of the main reasons to do this is because the processes now have new users participating: the machines. Communication involves humans and machines at the same time, which requires a different approach. With information coming and going between the two, it needs to be coordinated differently than it has in the past. In some processes, communication between machines will be prevalent to humans. In others, it will be the opposite. These needs to be taken into account when designing the MES or MOM system—to apply the correct technology but especially to guarantee that you are digitalizing an effective process.

There’s no limit in leveraging the opportunities provided by IIoT, Big Data, cloud computing, analytics or machine learning. They can be tremendously helpful in designing a more complex, automated and effective MES/MOM system.

One good point that was raised in the feedback I received was that many standards used to model and design MES/MOM solutions, like ISA-88 or ISA-95, have been around for many years and do not fit the “digital approach” very well. In my opinion, this is true. Standards need to be revised and updated to take into consideration how the landscape has changed. They are still useful for mapping processes, but cannot effectively capture the more fragmented and complex approach process description requires. In the past, standards were able to evolve almost simultaneously with solutions and technology. Sometimes standards were defined in advance. But this has become more difficult. Things are changing so rapidly that standards do not have time to be clearly defined and consolidated.

A new approach to standards definition needs to be found in order to harmonize the need to have widely accepted approaches without limiting the possibilities technical evolution provides. If standards will not adapt, there’s a big risk to have many custom and niche solutions implemented that will show their limits when they will need to be integrated with others or simply evolved. Well accepted standards need to support and facilitate the design of “tailored standard solutions,” balancing the contrasting needs to customize the solution with the specific needs of the client using mostly out-of-the-box standardized functionalities. Only in this way will complex, multi-plant environments be managed consistently, guaranteeing at the same time to preserve the differences that create value in each of them.

In the end, the most important goal that standards and tools need to help accomplish is enabling the client to have people focusing on key issues: cost, flexibility, efficiency, brand promise and risk mitigation. Standards should let them forget about the technology and problems that are not core to their business.

This is just some deeper thought on some points that were brought to my attention. There are several more that need to be analyzed. I will do it in a follow-up article.

Luigi De Bernardini is CEO at Autoware, a certified Control System Integrators Association (CSIA) member based in Vicenza, Italy; and president of Autoware Digital. For more information about Autoware, visit its profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

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