A business system for the shop floor

Effective automation is at the core of successful manufacturing enterprises because it provides tools to manage information and processes. Yet automation is more than making individual machines, groups of machines or even entire enterprises work effectively. That definition has now expanded to tying together all the islands of information within the enterprise – from the plant floor to th...

By Jack Smith, Senior Editor September 1, 2006

Effective automation is at the core of successful manufacturing enterprises because it provides tools to manage information and processes. Yet automation is more than making individual machines, groups of machines or even entire enterprises work effectively. That definition has now expanded to tying together all the islands of information within the enterprise — from the plant floor to the business office and back again.

“Automation does not end with equipment control,” said Dennis Brandl, chief consultant for BR&L Consulting, Cary, NC, and ISA-SP88 committee chair. “It also includes higher levels of control that manage personnel, equipment and materials across production areas. Effectiveness in manufacturing companies is not based solely on equipment control capability. Manufacturing companies must also be efficient at coordinating and controlling personnel, materials and equipment across different control systems in order to reach their maximum potential.”

The age of manufacturing execution systems has arrived. It is an age when enormous pressure exists to increase productivity, control costs and manage a diverse and aging manufacturing workforce in an increasingly competitive global environment. MES is that link that pulls the manufacturing enterprise together.

“If you go to any shop floor, there are probably hundreds of different systems running,” said Kevin Prouty, senior director of manufacturing solutions at Symbol Technologies, Lynnfield, MA. “MES consolidates those custom applications, provides new ones, but it really provides the information flow for a shop floor. MES is becoming very all-encompassing: almost every function, down to the point where automation takes over and up to the point where ERP needs information. It becomes the business system for the shop floor itself.”

Prouty refers to MES as a business process bridge. “It’s a place where the people are. When you think about it, ERP is about finances and information. The automation system is about automating the machines — making the machines do what you need them to do. In between are the people. MES is about automating the people and the information that people have.”

“Many manufacturing organizations have spent millions of dollars on ERP and other business level systems to discover that these applications do not deliver the levels of detailed tracking and reporting that were promised to them,” said Matt Bauer, director of software marketing for Rockwell Automation. “MES solutions, however, unlock this detailed level production information and compliment an ERP solution to fill in the missing details at the shop floor level.”

“Over the past 10 years, we’ve shifted the manufacturing focus from improving production to improving financial performance,” said Marc Leroux, ABB, Inc.’s marketing manager for collaborative production management. “That’s one of the main benefits given by ERP vendors. Unfortunately, very few ERP implementations have realized their objectives, and one of the main reasons for that is the lack of integration between ERP systems and manufacturing systems. Many organizations are still trying to justify the ROI of the ERP implementation, and recognize that in order to do that, they need better information from the shop floor.

“The bottom line is that many of the ROI gains were taken when the ERP system was implemented; it is hard to take them a second time. But the manufacturing environment is where the opportunity for improvements will be, not just locally, but also into the overall supply chain. Driving the improvements in manufacturing can certainly gain you the respect of the corner office.”

Different definitions

Call it a link, a bridge or a system, MES fills specific operational needs. “MES defines a diverse set of functions that operate above automation and control systems, reside below the level of enterprise business systems and are local to a site or area,” said Brandl.

As the technology re-emerges, different vendors define and interpret MES differently. “We often find that ‘operations management systems’ is a far better description for MES-type functionality than the more traditional ‘manufacturing execution system,’ because it encompasses far more,” said Michael Keaton, business consultant for Foxboro, MA-based Invensys Process Systems.

Keaton defines an MES or operations management system as “an integrated software system that helps management operate one or more industrial facilities in a consistent manner, obtain feedback on how the facility (or facilities) is (are) operating, compare their operation to the desired operation or goals and make the necessary adjustments to operate the facility better.”

“Traditionally, MES has been represented as production tracking; perhaps batch management, local inventory tracking and possibly quality management,” added Leroux. “ABB tends to refer to this space as ‘Collaborative Manufacturing,’ an ARC (Advisory Group) term referring to the space above the control system and below the enterprise, where applications share data and act together.”

Most vendors explain MES in some interpretative form of Brandl’s definition. But they tend to be stated with each company’s offerings and go-to-market strategies. But all agree that MES by any name resides in the space between the control system and the business/financial system.

MES issues

Just because a software suite is great at financials does not necessarily mean that it handles production data from control systems well — especially in real time. In the 1990s, Enterprise Resource Planning promised to ‘seamlessly’ integrate all the facets of manufacturing to provide real-world based information for managers to make responsible decisions. The promise of seamless integration was never really fulfilled.

Maybe skeptics didn’t have confidence in ERP because of recent memories of MRP and subsequent I, II and III attempts. One reason it fell short of expectations was that in the 1990s, manufacturing system integration attempts focused primarily on order management, financial accounting, customer management and shipping and receiving. Manufacturing — that place where the company’s actual products were made — was an amorphous black box with increasing overhead.

MES promises to connect the plant floor with the enterprise system and eliminate ‘islands of automation.’ However, early MES was targeted too vertically. Each industry vertical had its own flavor of MES. Also, getting information into the business systems automatically was difficult, if not impossible. Skilled coding and specialized system integration were required to connect the ERP and the process control system or manufacturing areas.

The concept of MES was ahead of its time; the technology was not ready. However, interoperability of open systems, common automation platforms, XML, OPC and standards are changing the manufacturing landscape.

New solutions are said to be built on factory floor expertise. Instead of being designed to integrate in a top-down mode, today’s integration is bottom-up because it is driven by the data, information and processes owned and managed by engineers and operators. This is important because engineers and operators are in the spotlight now more than ever; they understand and manage knowledge key to the success and viability of their manufacturing businesses.

“The emphasis of many MES systems has been on data collection, and that leads to a lot of the problems that exist in the MES space today,” Leroux continued. “The problem with data is that it has no context, so decision making becomes a challenge. If two parts of a facility, or two different facilities, use the same piece of data, but use it differently, the information that is produced will be different, and therefore inaccurate — or wrong. Inaccurate information is a leading source of the distrust of integrated manufacturing and business systems; studies have been done by Aberdeen, AMR, BASF and others to support this. ABB takes the approach of bringing data into a common plant model, producing information at the source.”

“Collecting data for the sake of collecting data is useless,” said Michael Yost, marketing manager for GE Fanuc Proficy Solutions. “The only reason to collect data is to use the data to drive operations and/or business functions — be it for process improvements, compliance management, cost management or any number of other legitimate functions. Regardless of the reason, the data must be contextualized, meaning that your systems must be able to translate raw data into actionable intelligence that drives your business.”

What is ‘real time’?

There is a difference of opinion on what is meant by ‘real time’ in many enterprises. At some plants, accounting, order entry and even the corner office consider real time to be sometime today — or even sometime this week. But real time is defined, or measured, differently at the control level, where real time actually approaches real time.

“At high levels of MES, an hour is okay, maybe a half hour,” said Prouty. “But (when) you start touching real shop floor applications, where people are depending on work instructions, real time becomes truly close to real time. You’re talking, at the worst, minutes.

“A decision that a PLC makes, that’s microseconds,” added Prouty.

“Where an operator maybe has a setup on a lathe, that has to be translated immediately into the machine,” Prouty explained. “So you take the setup information from the MES system and you actually log automatically into the machine; that has to happen in microseconds.”

“MES is that slippery buffer between the not-so-real-time of ERP and the real-time activities of a shop floor,” Prouty said.

Raising visibility

“Access to accurate, timely production data is no longer optional, it’s essential,” Yost said. “The plant floor is turning into a strategic tool for many manufacturers who see responsiveness and agility within their plants and across their supply chains as a competitive advantage. If you accept what the system tells you and are willing to change behaviors that today you think are not broken, the system will provide significant opportunities for improvement and allow you to get more things done.”

According to Bauer, companies buy and implement MES technology because “at the most fundamental level, these information solutions create a platform for continuous improvement in the manufacturing facility. MES automates manual execution processes, enforces good production practices and coordinates production data into easily accessible and actionable information. The result is better, faster and more accurate decisions — by operators or executive management. This translates into reduced waste, lower production costs and more flexible production capabilities.

“Basically, an MES investment improves visibility into real-time production processes while increasing the ability to execute production orders more quickly and accurately. This results in increased profits and increased manufacturing flexibility — a key enabler for companies that want to pursue new strategies and /or markets,” Bauer said.

“The objective should be that I have seamless access to information throughout the manufacturing facility,” Leroux added. “We’ve been talking about MES systems doing that for 20 years, but the reality is that they are still ‘islands’ inside manufacturing. With a well-designed solution, you should, for example, be able to use process or quality information as part of your maintenance, tie maintenance back to production and production to maintenance. That’s when you break down the MES barriers and have a true Collaborative Production Management system.”

“If you need to connect the plant to the enterprise, you’ll now have visibility into the actual material consumption on the plant floor (as it occurs); any quality or manufacturing problems as they happen; and you’ll have greater flexibility to see when orders come in, which areas or equipment are able to accept the order without having to go down to the plant to physically look at the equipment,” said Maryanne Steidinger, director of U.S. marketing manufacturing execution systems and solutions, Siemens Energy & Automation, Inc., Spring House, PA. “You will have a much better idea of what steps occurred and what the results are. Your yields will likely improve because you’ll know immediately if there are problems, so they can be fixed before vast amounts of defective product are manufactured (or shipped), and you can stop value-added steps to products that should be reworked.”

Claus Abildgren, marketing program manager, production and performance management, Wonderware, Lake Forest, CA, advocates establishing common definitions based on a plant model. For example, define once how to communicate with a PLC, security rules, data collection and process historian; then allow the functional component on top to provide additional functionality.

“You don’t have to do data collection four times if you have four different applications,” Abildgren said, “because it revolves around the same equipment, or plant model. ‘How do I communicate with my equipment and how do I collect the data?’ It becomes a condition of a functional definition of what you are trying to achieve, based on the same plant model.”

Setting realistic expectations

“Expectations have to be set properly,” said Keaton. “MES is not nirvana and all your problems will not go away. However, given the right approach and selecting the right functions to automate and integrate, a system can be installed that will make life easier and improve operations.”

“A common expectation, which is 100% wrong, is that MES is a cure-all. It is impossible to buy a package of software and have it cure all that ails a manufacturer,” Yost added.

Steidinger agrees: “Setting expectations correctly is important. MES does not have to be a ‘big bang’ implementation. Many customers are looking for just one specific functionality of MES — for example Overall Equipment Effectiveness for better asset utilization and equipment uptime. A smaller ‘point’ solution can go in faster, cleaner, with less impact on the overall operation,” she said. “On the other hand, an MES to do product tracking, tracing and genealogy will be more pervasive and will require more development and implementation time, for the entire operation and all of its nuances will need to be captured in the system.”

Yost said there are obvious investments in hardware and software, networking, training and typical project-related work. “However, there must also be a commitment from the plant and the business to make an MES initiative work. Plant problems rarely, if ever, exist only in one department. So, plant leadership will need to work across departmental boundaries to ensure issues can be raised and mitigated properly.

“The organization must be committed to the success of the initiative in the short and long-term,” he added. “If it isn’t, the results and corresponding ROI will likely not meet expectations. If the organization is committed, the results have been proven to be nothing short of transformational — transforming plants and companies into profitable, world-class entities.”

The Bottom Line…

  • MES resides in the space between the control system and the business/financial system.

  • MES is about automating the people and the information that people have.

  • The only reason to collect data is to use the data to drive operations and/or business functions.

  • ERP systems and MES have different concepts of ‘real time.’

  • Access to accurate, timely production data is no longer optional.

    • Filling specific needs in a ‘typical’ MES

      There is no ‘typical’ MES. The functionality, level of automation and integration requirements depend on the type of manufacturing enterprise, how it conducts its business and the value it expects to receive from an automation investment.

      Regulatory compliance, continuous improvement and enterprise visibility are some of the reasons companies are serious this time about MES. Long-term MES benefits can include:

      Improved profitability

      Increased productivity

      Reduced production costs

      Reduced cycle times — move toward the build-to-order model

      Reduced training requirement.

      “There has to be an internal business reason that you need it — whether it be work in process tracking, lowering WIP, reducing inventory, improving quality — you have to have some underlying business need for it,” said Kevin Prouty of Symbol Technologies. “Regulatory issues like SOX (Sarbanes-Oxley) or 21 CFR Part 11 drive a lot of MES implementations; it’s usually real-time or regulatory focused.”

      Matt Bauer of Rockwell Automation sees visibility, tracking and control as its key capabilities. According to Bauer, these capabilities focus on three primary types of manufacturing problems:

      Capacity — MES helps ensure a plant gets the most throughput from the capacity of its equipment, tooling, employees and facility

      Quality — MES not only monitors product and process quality. It also helps eliminate errors, identifies root causes and points the way to quality improvements

      Delivery — MES helps ensure the plant meets its schedule for shipping customer orders, in part through coordinating activities throughout the plant based on those due dates.

      “MES occupies a special place in the information infrastructure of a manufacturing company,” Bauer said. “It spans between shop floor controls and enterprise systems. It provides enterprise visibility to actual production results and control systems with an updated view of what the enterprise needs from production to meet its business goals, including work instructions, recipes and other pertinent information.”

      According to Bauer, MES functions can include:

      Production dispatching

      WIP and resource tracking

      Product genealogy

      Document control

      Asset utilization

      Resource management

      Quality management

      Yield analysis

      Maintenance management

      Finite scheduling

      “A typical MES will likely have functionality to model the operations or manufacturing process (the workflow model) which reflects the way ‘good’ products should be manufactured,” said Maryanne Steidinger of Siemens Energy & Automation. “A key MES functionality is its ability to gather and store all process data that is attributed to the product, whether that information is generated through automatic or manual means.

      “The MES becomes the ‘system of record,’ allowing the manufacturer to store all relevant data for months, or years, and compare lots or specific quality aspects of a product for advanced process control; and also to comply with specific government or industry regulations for good manufacturing practices, electronic signature capture, etc.”

      MESA helps define the possibilities of MES

      It’s ironic that the word ‘mesa’ has two definitions. One is a technical term to describe a 1960s process to create sublayers in a transistor. The other is a flat piece of land in the Southwest that is created through erosion.

      The Manufacturing Enterprise Solutions Association had been eroding a bit when it was revitalized in 2003. Supporting a technology that links the plant floor with the enterprise business systems, MESA’s ties to the transistor are unmistakable.

      Today MESA is defining itself in a new way, picking up considerable momentum — as is manufacturing execution system technology — as it prepares for its annual conference Oct. 9—12 in Orlando.

      “We need to drive the initiative to become more competitive,” said MESA chairman Karsten Newberry, the general manager of process automation and manufacturing execution business for Siemens Energy and Automation. “The U.S. wants to be more competitive globally, and MES is one way to do that.”

      “Until recently, MES was more of a work order management system,” said John Dyck of GE Fanuc. “MESA is taking a much more integrated definition, including predictive maintenance systems, integrated quality and inventory management systems.”

      As MES solutions emerge, there is still a great deal of education that needs to be done on how it works and how it drives productivity to the plant floor. MESA’s approach is to bring manufacturing end-users, system integrators, hardware and software suppliers and consultants together to examine best practices and new strategies to drive that kind of productivity.

      The organization has a series of goals:

      Helping users understand the possibilities in MES through improved profitability, manufacturing agility and customer satisfaction

      Discuss best practices with other manufacturers

      Learn how to successfully fund and deploy new technology introductions throughout the enterprise.

      “Plant managers, plant engineers truly want to manage their business the best way they can,” said Newberry. “There’s been a lot of automation, but they’ve been missing the information, and they haven’t been able to be as efficient as they will with the tools in MES.

      “It’s really about how people work with each other. What I’ve found is that once they’ve seen what it can do, people are excited about it. These are tools that really drive more productivity and help people work more collaboratively.”

      “We’re moving toward a more lean supply chain. Now you have to be more flexible in manufacturing,” added Michael Yost of GE Fanuc. “That movement toward a global supply chain is changing how plants need to operate. The new role of MES is to optimize not just the plant, but optimize the supply chain.”

      That supply chain is global as well, which is why MESA has attracted international expertise to its board. “MES is an enabler for the supply chain. In Europe, we’re a little ahead of the U.S. Competitive pressures forced us to be more flexible,” said Jan Snoeij of LogicaCMG, chairman of MESA’s international expansion committee. “From a European perspective, operators in the past were afraid of the ‘Big Brother’ syndrome. My response was, who can evaluate your performance better than you can? You can improve yourself, you can manage yourself and get feedback all the time. The supply chain is asking for different things all the time.”

      It is an issue MESA leaders see not only within the larger realm of manufacturing, but within their own walls as well. “With an aging workforce, one of the things it can do is digitize the processes and reduce the reliance of knowledge inside workers’ heads,” said Dyck. “GE has 1,500 plants, and the workforce is unionized. They’ve seen the company closing plants and outsourcing jobs, and what it’s done is it has the unions embracing MES. What we’ve found is that there was this wall, and you couldn’t optimize your work flow because of the operational barriers.”

      “There was an MES system in a coffee factory in the Netherlands. The quality department was checking the packaging, and there were 15 elements to be checked,” said Snoeij. “Every week, the quality department reported all the faults, and the operators knew too late that there were faults. When MES was implemented, since the moment it started, the operators were able to see themselves, as soon as there was some change in the packaging, they could adjust their equipment. Quality control kept checking, but soon they found themselves with 0% waste.”

      Newberry is quick to point out that MES is not a push-button solution to the issues faced in manufacturing today. “It is about people, not just about systems,” he said. “(MESA) is built around education. MESA does give a clear vision of what MES is. The form of MES does change from discrete made-to-order to process made-to-stock. What fits for one does not fit for everyone. It’s not just matching architecture to workflow.”

      “Between analytics and execution, we can solve problems in contemporary ways,” Dyck added. “MES needs both a top-down and a bottom-up implementation to succeed. If it doesn’t have the executive sponsorship, if it’s not funded and treated as a strategic initiative, it’s not going to succeed.”

      And Dyck sees the plant floor as the key to success with MES implementation in the enterprise. “Knowledge keepers at the plant level are often not being tapped. It’s when both ends come together that you see value in the process. We’re seeing a significant shift of people spending in this space. It’s a shift from the ERP-IT side to the manufacturing-IT side.

      “The plant floor is the next frontier. Things have really become focused on the plant floor in this calendar year. Business IT is focusing on the plant floor. After all the investments elsewhere, they’re seeing a real opportunity there. It’s driving a new supply chain paradigm.”

      MESA International’s 2nd Annual Plant-To-Enterprise Conference, P2E: Solving the Puzzle of Manufacturing Excellence, will take place Oct. 9—12 at the Disney Coronado Springs resort at Walt Disney World in Orlando. PLANT ENGINEERING magazine is among the media sponsors for this year’s event. Go to

      — Bob Vavra

      FYI Online…

      There are literally dozens of case studies and white papers on MES systems. We’ve compiled a few of the best at our