Taking your MES with you

01 March 2021

When looking for the right MES solution system today, manufacturers need to consider the ability of an MES to evolve with them, argues Francisco Almada.

Systems controlling plant floor operations are changing rapidly. The whole premise of Industry 4.0 is to bring physical production and its operations (OT) together with information technology (IT) solutions to provide a holistic view of production, supply chain and wider business goals. It aims to break down silos and create an integrated ecosystem where production efficiency, quality, and business agility all thrive. But how do you know you are picking the right system for the future?

Manufacturing execution systems (MES) have long been the backbone of plant floor operations. Historically, however, they have evolved with narrow requirements – with specific functionality and features to fit specific types of processes – making it difficult to apply them in different industries. More recent MES offerings have instead focussed on flexibility and configurability of systems so they can adapt to a wide variety of different processes. Today’s MES solutions can create more flexible, configurable out-of-the-box solutions, and, when different possibilities of working within the bounds of configuration are exhausted, additional options for extending the core functionality.

Choosing the right MES 
An MES needs to allow a company to evolve, grow and innovate. To this end, a system that has highly flexible configuration and allows for extension of core functionality is needed. The option for extreme configuration is preferred because a severely customised system makes upgrades, integration, backwards compatibility, and futureproofing much harder – but areas of both configuration and customisation for the future need to be considered in the design of forward-thinking solutions. 

An MES should give guidance, enforce manufacturing rules and processes, and collect information. In addition, it also now needs to go beyond the boundaries of manufacturing areas. Modern manufacturing models require integration business related processes, such as maintenance, quality, and engineering, and the ability to expand into the entire supply chain and integrate areas such as warehouse management, supply chain management and Product Lifecycle Management (PLM).

Another important aspect of a future ready MES is its analytical capability. Traditionally, an MES would collect data for traceability and for some key performance indicators (KPIs).The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) has introduced new solutions such as stream processing and machine learning (ML) to help derive insights. To enable tight control and execution, data needs to be collected in real time and the benefits of deeper analytics can only be achieved with deep integration between MES and IoT data platform.

In the cloud
Another consideration is where should the MES reside? Some manufacturers want it on premises, some on the cloud, some a combination of the two, some want ‘Software-as-a-Service’, some want ‘Platform-as-a-Service’. If on the cloud, should it be a private cloud? An MES needs to allow for all these options and this is possible if MES deployment is based on ‘containers’ to provide an abstraction layer for easy deployment in any environment.

The way users interact with an MES is also changing. Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) solutions are all entering the manufacturing landscape, making interactions with the system as reactive, intelligent, intuitive, adaptive and personalised to real circumstances as possible.

An MES solution requires a long-term commitment. History has shown us that these systems can reside in a business for up to 20 or even 30 years. So, it is important to understand the roadmap and future plans for MES systems to ensure you do not get stuck with a solution that will not evolve with the business. To this end, a system should allow extreme customisation and personalisation without compromising the upgrade path for the future and consider development paths of all areas, including execution, automation and analytics. 

As plant floor operations evolve, different solutions, such as IoT, MES and automation, begin to occupy the same spaces and the boundaries between them blur. As these ‘systems’ become increasingly integrated, a solution that employs the features of each of these entities and which allows different types of customisation and expansion by utilising a framework architecture, will be one that a business can thrive on for decades to come.

Francisco Almada Lobo is CEO at Critical Manufacturing.

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