Get IT, engineering together on MES effort

Traditionally, IT departments handle the ERP and other systems used in the office. The functionality in these systems belongs largely on ISA-95 Level 4. These IT people “speak” Java, .Net, and other programming languages. Engineers are working in a completely different world, namely, the world of instrumentation, PLC, SCADA and DCS, with programming methods like ladder logic, SFC an...

By Bianca Scholten August 1, 2009

Traditionally, IT departments handle the ERP and other systems used in the office. The functionality in these systems belongs largely on ISA-95 Level 4. These IT people “speak” Java, .Net, and other programming languages. Engineers are working in a completely different world, namely, the world of instrumentation, PLC, SCADA and DCS, with programming methods like ladder logic, SFC and function blocks. They’re active on ISA-95 Level 2 and lower. But who takes care of automating activities on ISA-95 Level 3; in other words, MES?

Over time, traditional Level 2 process control system vendors have offered more and more Level 3 functionality such as historians, standard production reports and recipe management modules. These systems are closely integrated with the systems on Level 2, so it’s essential to have a thorough knowledge of the process and its automation. This suggests that the engineers should be the ones to support MES and execute MES projects.

On the other hand, there are reasons to think that IT should support MES. The MES software vendors have based their historians, reporting functionality and recipe management on the operating systems, programming languages and network protocols that are characteristic of IT environments.

When I asked two of my clients who in their companies was responsible for supporting MES projects and maintaining MES systems, I got contradictory responses. I decided to do some research, in a very informal, non-scientific way. The purpose was to get a first impression of the current situation at different clients, to collect a variety of opinions and to list some advantages and disadvantages of MES support by IT and MES support by Engineering.

“It can’t be a coincidence that we keep addressing the same topics,” responded one MES project leader after I sent him a short list of questions. “I’ve just become a member of a European working group to investigate this very same subject. It appears that each of our plants in Europe has a different approach. The purpose of the working group is to develop a recommendation on where to place the boundary between the different disciplines and the related organization. The final goal is to develop a common approach.”

When there’s daily collaboration, IT and Engineering usually report to the same entity. Several respondents reported that the relationship between IT and Engineering greatly improved from the moment they were forced to work on a single, integrated architecture. This led to greater clarity on roles and responsibilities, and they started to trust each other more. Establishing a Level 3 IT department (“Manufacturing IT”) also seems to positively impact collaboration.

You need a bridge, and that bridge can be built by establishing a dedicated Manufacturing IT group that combines IT skills with automation skills.

Of course, one of IT’s strong points is their knowledge of information technologies such as Ethernet, the IT infrastructure, networks, protocols, topologies, databases, data management, security and software development technologies, tools and methods. An MES is an application that’s oriented toward interfaces and databases.

Databases are not part of a technical engineering environment. “IT departments are larger and can afford to have more specialized knowledge,” said one respondent. “In most companies, Engineering has been stripped to the bone and fragmented to provide support for manufacturing systems and equipment at diverse sites. This severely limits the talent pool at any single site.”

IT is also reported to be more professional when it comes to system maintenance. They’re better at systems monitoring, making backups and developing system documentation. Engineering, on the contrary, provides support “on the side.” It isn’t their core task, and they handle it less professionally. Furthermore, IT is used to working with several disciplines. Like ERP systems, MES systems are used in different fields, so this experience is helpful.

A very frequently mentioned advantage of using IT for MES support is its central location within the company. From its vantage point, IT has an overview of the whole site, or even the entire company. So they’re familiar with the infrastructure MES uses, and they’re already responsible for the desktops MES uses. Moreover, they know the other business processes and systems with which MES has to exchange information. From this central position, they have a better basis for harmonization and standardization, and for avoiding redundant functionality. As a result, they’re capable of developing a corporate MES strategy and integrating it into the corporate IT strategy. This integration leads to synergy among plants; implementation knowledge could be reused from one plant to the next. Ultimately, it results in cost efficiency.

Engineers don’t have this bird’s-eye view. Historically, they focus on local projects, whose scope doesn’t reach beyond a production machine or a production line. One of the respondents reported that his company’s Engineering department had once implemented OEE functionality for a production line, which — from a business perspective — wasn’t at all, because that line wasn’t a bottleneck. So, unnecessary investments can be the result when they’re not first assessed at a higher level.

The idea that Engineering doesn’t have enough information to be able to assess the MES business case is supported by another interviewee. “How can they know what the costs and benefits of integrating MES with LIMS are? And how can they know whether material tracking and tracing would be best supported by the warehouse management system, the ERP system, or the MES?”

In short, there are many advantages when IT is responsible for supporting MES projects and maintaining MES systems. This suggests that IT should hold the reins. But let’s see if there are any significant advantages when Engineering carries out these tasks.

Knowledge of, and affinity with, production is a very important characteristic of Engineering. Even if information technologies continue to exert ever more influence on process automation, you’ll always need detailed knowledge about the production process, the product specifications and the limitations of the process and the equipment. Typically, the heart of the MES system is a model of the production process, and that model must be aligned with the Level 2 systems.

Especially when the production process comprises a mixture of manual steps (supported by MES) and automated steps (supported by the Level 2 system), the MES will have to be in close harmony with Level 2 systems, and this is something Engineering can take care of.

IT is not renowned for its extensive knowledge of the production process. Both physically and in terms of experience, they’re removed from the processes with which MES must be integrated. “With an MES system, it’s essential to fully understand the processes about which MES is reporting. If you don’t, you’re reporting rubbish!” said one interviewee.

Another said, “It’s not feasible to train IT people to the extent that they’ll be able to deal with this. The biggest challenge for an IT person is to think like a production person. For example, reliability within the four walls of a production plant is much more important than corporate efficiency or being able to work remotely. You can’t decide just like that on a Friday night to shut down the system for a few hours of maintenance. Engineers are reputed to understand this much better than IT people. They’re much closer to the reality of the production process. Engineers usually report directly to production managers, and they’re part of what companies call ‘Production’.”

“Engineers are familiar with production requirements and are willing to develop solutions meeting those requirements. Engineering doesn’t just come into play after a functional specification is ready, but helps create a user requirements specification and develops the functional specification on its own,” explained a respondent who works for an Engineering department. Engineering can also provide 24/7 support, whereas that’s not the way IT tends to work.

Engineering projects have a direct impact on production processes. Often, these projects can only be realized by stopping production. These production stops must be as short as possible. This is an aspect with which IT people usually aren’t familiar.

Moreover, corporate IT and security policies can’t be applied to production systems the same way they’re applied to enterprise systems.

So who should be in charge?

In short: both Engineering and IT possess important knowledge and skills for MES projects and MES systems support. When it comes to assigning responsibility for these tasks, many companies seem to be in a situation that’s grown organically instead of resulting from a conscious, strategic decision. The ones that did make a conscious decision didn’t all make the same decision. There are still many diverse options, and nothing indicates that one scenario is better than the other.

For example, you could put IT in charge and have them communicate with Engineering on a project-by-project basis. You could do the same thing the other way around. Another option is to establish a dedicated Manufacturing IT department. Yet another possibility is to put IT and Engineering under one roof, by merging the departments.

The questions I raised in my survey are burning, and we’d all like to find the answer to them. But there are a lot of different opinions, and even now, hardly any information about best practices is available. So beware! If someone tells you “This is the best way to do it,” you’re probably listening to a personal opinion and not a scientifically proven fact.

Until more information about best practices is available, I can only make you aware of this point of concern, and advise you to pay special attention to where you place responsibility for system support when you introduce MES in your company.

Excerpted from the book “MES Guide For Executives.” Bianca Scholten is a management consultant and partner at Task 24, a European system integrator and consultancy. She is author of the book, “The Road to Integration: A Guide to Applying ISA-95 in Manufacturing.”

“MES Guide For Executives” is available through ISA by going to .