Managing collaborative production

The "next generation of MES" brings greater agility, transparency to the process

By Marc Leroux, ABB Inc. April 1, 2009

Manufacturing Execution Systems have been around for almost 20 years, yet the adoption of them has been sporadic, and the results have seldom left management feeling that they have achieved their projected results.

Part of the reason for this is that MES have been, largely, stand-alone information systems that have often been geared toward solving a single problem, and are often loosely tied to the rest of the manufacturing infrastructure: automation, business and other point solutions in a manufacturing facility. These solutions simply did not meet management’s expectations.

Manufacturing agility

Largely defined as systems that sit above automation and below business systems, MES is slowly being eliminated as ERP suppliers push their applications down into manufacturing, and as automation vendors extend their functionality upward. The focus in the post Y2K era is on systems that collaborate with each other, promoting organizational agility.

Agility in manufacturing can be defined as the ability to quickly respond to change, while maintaining effectiveness and organizational strategic direction. This requires a collaborative manufacturing environment with seamless horizontal integration within manufacturing and a seamless vertical collaboration with the enterprise systems bringing disparate systems together in an environment that promotes the easy interchange of information. With business and manufacturing dynamics changing on a weekly basis, the need for collaboration between systems has never been greater.

Manufacturing visibility

In the current economic environment, many manufacturers are recognizing that the fastest way to improve the overall supply chain is to focus on where — and how — products are made. This focus is largely on providing better visibility into the manufacturing process as a first step, then providing the local optimization of the process. These are two key elements of any manufacturing system.

Collaborative Production Management systems encompass the basic functionality of MES systems, and also Manufacturing Operations Management (MOM), as defined in the ISA-95 part 3 standard. These requirements can be simplified as:

  • What are you going to make?

  • How are you going to make it?

  • What have I made?

    • One common aspect of all of these points is that they require visibility into the manufacturing process. A frustrated CIO that we talked to commented that he “was making real-time decisions with month-old information.” Today’s collaborative manufacturing solutions significantly change this.

      Understanding what you are going to make typically starts at the enterprise level, and involves understanding the manufacturing and distribution costs, capabilities and availability across the organization. These are typically estimated within ERP systems, but they do not account for local conditions, which may include production asset availability, personnel or maintenance schedules, or production upsets.

      Making decisions in real time

      The ability to react to changes in the manufacturing environment on a timely basis can greatly impact the overall profitability of an organization. Being able to tie manufacturing asset information to into the real-time decision making process, as an example, can let the corporate planning system decide where the optimal place to manufacture a product is — not just based on planned maintenance — but on the current health of the asset. Having real-time asset status adds a degree of flexibility to the supply chain that we have talked about for years, but few have been able to implement.

      Additionally, it allows other aspects to be incorporated in the decision process. Understanding the demands on electricity consumption and the current and planned consumption of electricity can be another factor in how products are manufactured. The decision to manufacture products that would incur a high energy cost can be deferred or routed to another facility, potentially freeing up electricity to be sold back to the grid. In cases such as these, the avoidance of high tariffs, combined with the potential revenue from selling excess electricity, can greatly increase overall organizational effectiveness and ultimately improve profitability.

      All of this requires transparency in the manufacturing environment.

      Organizations that have implemented manufacturing transparency — a key factor in a collaborative production environment — have realized tremendous improvements in their supply chain and overall production costs. The challenge that many organizations face is that they have multiple manufacturing operations systems in addition to multiple automation systems.

      The traditional way of resolving this has been to replicate information into a central historian, meaning that the historian is now being used for operational data rather than analysis, and that there are multiple copies of pieces of information. This means that there is no “single version of the truth.”

      Benefits of a collaborative environment

      The benefits of a collaborative production environment can be expressed in standard business terms:

    • Improving manufacturing predictability is a key benefit to improved visualization. Having a predictable manufacturing cycle is the key to improving the supply chain and reducing the order-to-cash cycle. Having a predictable manufacturing environment and a real-time view of any production issues can substantially improve transportation planning, which can lead to significant cost reductions. Additionally, raw material, in process and finished good inventories can be substantially reduced, improving inventory turns and cash flow

    • Reductions in manufacturing time result in better business agility, shortening order turnaround and providing more options on where and when orders can be produced

    • Managing production assets in real time, rather than performing scheduled maintenance, can reduce maintenance costs and improve availability. This leads to labor reductions, quality improvements and better throughput, leading to a lower per-unit manufacturing cost. Additional benefits are longer effective asset lifetime and improved safety

    • The integration of business and manufacturing information means that manufacturers can switch from a throughput based environment to a financial production environment, where decisions can be made by understanding the financial impacts of production decisions.

      • Most CEOs would agree that the greatest value that they have achieved from the implementation of a corporate business system has been the standardization of business processes throughout the organization. Many believed that the advent of standards such as ISA-95 would permit these business processes to be transferred to manufacturing.

        What we have seen though is that this has not occurred. Most MES or Manufacturing Operations systems that have been implemented have been limited to passing data, and have not focused on the incorporation of business processes, except at the basic data validation level. This leaves a large gap in an organization’s move toward agility.

        The true value of a collaborative production environment incorporates business rules throughout all of the manufacturing process. It also includes the seamless view of any piece of trustworthy manufacturing or business information with the correct context — regardless of where it originates — is the true value of a collaborative production environment.

        This is significantly different than the “Islands of Manufacturing” that exist with traditional MES and MOM systems, with their loose connection between modules and to automation. With such systems, manufacturing becomes seamlessly integrated into the overall supply chain, allowing companies to react faster and more effectively to changes in the overall market.

        Agility, responsiveness, effectiveness: these are the key drivers for the future of manufacturing. Collaborative Production Management, the next generation of MES, offers these today.

        Author Information
        Marc Leroux is Collaborative Production Management marketing manager for

        MES implementation tips

        MES implementation is neither simple nor quick. First, define your expectations, advises Ted Thayer, automation systems product manager for

        Second, consider a gradual approach to system implementation. “Although some companies choose to do it all at once, a step-by-step approach is really better,” said Maryanne Steidinger, MES products manager for

        To achieve success with an MES, Steidinger advises the following:

        Understand why you’re buying it

        Allow all stakeholders to offer input

        Engage the support of all stakeholders

        Obtain adequate technical help, including a consultant or integrator, if required

        Do due diligence: make sure the vendor you select can capture your needs now and in the future.

        In addition:

        Make sure your system is customizable, but limit code-based changes. Warns Sheila Kester, general manager of operations management software for

        Don’t ignore security issues. “The plant floor just might be the weakest link in the security chain,” said Thayer. “Often, we don’t pay enough attention to the networks on the shop floor, which are very vulnerable. They are a potential back door into the facility.”

        Consider applying ISA S95 to facilitate system integration. “S95 puts some structure around what might otherwise seem to be unstructured, nebulous and out of control,” said Alison Smith, vice president of marketing strategy and research for AspenTech. “The biggest mistake we see is companies assuming which systems will do what before they do their mapping. The best tool we’ve found to help get everyone speaking the same language is S95.”

        —Jeanine Katzel