Get connected to your data

MES helps sort through information to deliver measured performance

By Richard Witucki, Schneider Electric February 25, 2011

In today’s global marketplace, manufacturers face productivity pressures from
competitors around the world. As a result, they’re looking to squeeze every ounce of efficiency they can out of their plants because they know that only the fittest survive. Failure to reduce costs and increase productivity generally means your competition will beat you. So how do you do it?

Most manufacturers look to their plant’s data to understand how the plant operates and identify where improvements need to be made. But it’s not as easy as it sounds.

With most plants using microprocessorbased control systems, it’s not uncommon to find many hundreds of programmable controllers, drives and intelligent motor controllers in a typical facility.

This avalanche of data in today’s modern industrial plants is overwhelming. And with it, comes a new set of challenges. How do you sort out what is important — especially when you’re looking for the relevant facts and analytical tools to improve your plant’s productivity — and avoid being buried by data? Most importantly, how do you sort the data quickly and efficiently, without spending countless man hours and without using trial and error?

What is an MES system?

A Manufacturing Execution System is a suite of manufacturing operational software that connects to multiple plant and business systems, collects the relevant data and presents it as easy-to-understand, real-time intelligence for productivity analysis, data mining, querying and reporting. An MES system can help you identify bottlenecks, analyze production downtime causes and energy management, calculate key performance indicators (KPIs), understand your work-in-progress, track the real costs of production, and many more operational performances issues.

Whether they realize it or not, all companies have an MES system, but they generally consist of whiteboards, clipboards and spreadsheet files. These informal MES systems are inflexible, time consuming and cumbersome. Not to mention, the information usually is outdated by the time you’re done collecting it and getting down to the business of analyzing it. Who wants to make decisions based on old information?

An MES system can help you make sense of it all, integrating the data to provide meaningful, actionable reporting.

How do you use the information?

In plant engineering, you may want to reduce costs, time, and risk, while optimizing asset performance. Perhaps your goal is to reduce your maintenance costs or improve quality. Or maybe you simply know that your company isn’t as productive as it could be, but you’re not sure why.

An MES system can help you understand your system and make better engineering and operational decisions.

For example, over the course of a given year, your plant could face both capacity constraints and capacity surplus. During your busy season, you may only be able to fulfill 80% of the orders you have. During this time, your plant needs more throughput. Should you put in a new line, ship the product elsewhere to be produced, or make process improvements to better utilize your existing equipment and avoid capital expenditures?

Your plant also may face a period of sluggish demand where your production slows. You don’t want to overwork employees or lay them off. What should you do to optimize production?

An MES system can help you achieve and exceed targets set for KPIs such as Overall Equipment Effectiveness by offering complete system visualization and real-time information to improve business strategies and make informed decisions that improve productivity and efficiency, and reduce costs. An MES system helps you see the forest through the trees so you can concentrate your efforts on the right activities.

Not all systems are created equal

Once you decide that you want an MES system to help you gather and measure key process data instead of using the traditional clipboard and spreadsheet-based system, you need to choose the one that’s best for you.

All MES systems are not created equal, so you should consider the following key criteria in choosing a solution:

  • Ease of integration
  • Ease of connectivity
  • Analysis capabilities
  • Resources and technical support

Ease of integration

When choosing an MES platform, keep it simple. Pick a software manufacturer that has just one product and one platform where everything is integrated and configured together, rather than a series of smaller platforms, or a “suite” of products. It can be difficult to integrate and manage loosely coupled software packages, especially when the manufacturer releases new software for one product in the suite.

Equally important is to choose an MES system that was designed with your IT department’s best interests in mind.An MES system that doesn’t interfere with top floor operations makes the lives of the IT personnel easier, which in turn makes your life easier.

Ease of connectivity

Like most companies, you probably have a mix of vendors’ hardware and software, some old and some new. The best MES systems simply and easily connect to automation hardware from multiple manufacturers. You don’t want to have to change your manufacturing system to implement an MES system — you want a universal solution. Find an MES system that isn’t dependent on a certain manufacturer’s system or hardware to work.

You also should select an MES system that excels at bringing disparate sources of data together from all parts of the manufacturing system and can interface with all types of data sources — even files created by off-line manual data entry. Also, insist upon openness in connecting to your business accounting system and other Enterprise Resource Planning components.

Analysis Capabilities

You’ve made the decision to implement an MES system and you’re looking forward to viewing your data and making more informed decisions that lead to an improved bottom line for your company. This next step is crucial. Don’t let the technology get in the way. You want an MES system that doesn’t require a lot of data mining before you can analyze it.

Some companies may offer to collect data for several months, analyze it and create a report with suggested changes to your process. Unfortunately, after implementing the suggested changes, you’ll be right back where you started with spreadsheets and clipboards, making decisions from old information.

Still other companies give you the ability to analyze your data faster and create reports yourself, but it requires a lot of data slicing and dicing before you get down to the business of analysis. Plus, you don’t just want one report. You want to take the data in the report and create various charts and graphs without having to start from scratch every time.

What you want is the “easy button” of MES systems. You want it to be so intuitive that you don’t even have to think about how to use it, you just use it. Rather than concentrating on how to manipulate the data — for example, in sums or by day, or what columns to use — you just start analyzing it. Let’s say you want to analyze the performance of your case packers. Imagine the power of being able to drill down through the data by shift and case type to determine if it’s your first- or third-shift workers, or your 12-pack or 24-pack products, or some combination thereof, causing downtime — in just five minutes.

Look for MES software that allows you to analyze the data yourself, in real time, all in one place, without the need for any separate software tool or third-party applications. This way, you’ll have the information you need to make decisions in the fastest way possible.

You’ll also want MES software where you can define your own unique metrics and KPIs like OEE. While OEE is an industry standard, each company looks at downtime slightly differently and may configure OEE accordingly. Plus, there’s tremendous value in being able to view the data in ways that are unique and meaningful to your company. The system will monitor your parameters without forcing you to dig through a lot of data. It will prioritize and point you to the top issues causing inefficiency. As a result, you’ll know exactly what to do to make the most of your equipment and compete globally.

Resources and Technical Support

Finally, choose an MES software manufacturer that supports your current or future global activities. Software that automatically can be localized with currency, time, language and other local information, depending on where it’s implemented, saves time and resources.

It’s also important to choose a company that can offer local support, training and product availability, whether you’re in the United States, Europe or Asia.

Choosing the right MES system can help you gain visibility of real-time data directly from the plant floor, and make a fast and informed decision, based on reliable manufacturing data, about what to do with it.

– Richard Witucki is a solutions specialist with Schneider Electric’s U.S. SCADA and MES Competency Center. He has a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Michigan Tech University. He has 20 years of experience in industrial automation and MES systems. He can be reached at richard.witucki(at)