Newer, flexible MES systems make plant floor adoption easier

The age old proverb “There’s more than one way to skin a cat” certainly applies to manufacturing. New techniques and methods of various processes continuously emerge, often labeled as “technology.” However, many technological developments simply don’t pay off. For those that gain common use as a manufacturing process, relative longevity is nearly assured.


The age old proverb “There’s more than one way to skin a cat” certainly applies to manufacturing. New techniques and methods of various processes continuously emerge, often labeled as “technology.”

However, many technological developments simply don’t pay off. For those that gain common use as a manufacturing process, relative longevity is nearly assured. So it goes with manufacturing execution systems %%MDASSML%% that layer of information processing that automates some portion of operation, line and plant management by using information gathered from plant, corporate, supplier and customer activity.

Today a new approach is emerging, which I will call the “next generation MES systems.” These flexible, out-of-the-box MES systems %%MDASSML%% now available from several sources %%MDASSML%% empower manufacturers to actively participate in applying the system to various manufacturing processes. The adoption of open standard infrastructure over the last 20 years, including TCP/IP, OPC and SQL, has increased the applicability of commercial systems.

Before this new trend emerged, automotive manufacturers have applied various information tools to the data available, using data collection mechanisms, databases, spreadsheets and other analytical tools to help increase productivity. In many other cases, simple methods have been used to the same end, such as Kanban cards and flow manufacturing models.

Simple methods, while not always applicable, have simple implementation and maintenance cost exposure. More sophisticated methods imply more complicated implementation and maintenance. Although positive results can be easily measured from the application of MES, such as higher productivity due to increased yield and reduced waste, the total cost of implementing and maintaining such systems remains elusive, and is often concealed in supporting staff and indirect supplier costs.

Using an incremental approach has been the traditional mode of introduction regarding MES systems throughout the automotive industry. Spot requirements dictate point solutions; therefore the lowest initial cost option has typically been applied. Whether driven by OEM requirements or internal control plans, limited processes and systems have been implemented to address required functionality.

Over time a “monster cat” has evolved %%MDASSML%% one that is difficult to skin in any way. The obstacle is most often a lack of flexibility %%MDASSML%% static linear functionality, unsupported point solutions, disparate code base, unavailable developers (internal or external), incompatible infrastructure and unaddressed new requirements. Interdependencies among ad-hoc purchased and developed systems have now handcuffed manufacturers. The next incremental point solution is either unattainable or far too costly.

That’s where this “next generation” MES system has emerged. The exponentially decreasing cost of information processing power and storage has finally brought adoption costs within reason. Homegrown, custom programmed, small scale point solutions are now losing favor in contrast to highly flexible, enterprise scaleable and broad based MES systems.

The cats therefore are migrating. Point solutions still exist, but manufacturers need to be aware of the pitfalls. In addition, attractive limited functionality can be obtained through extensions to corporate systems such as ERP, or extensions from the industrial controls layer.

However, these often require the same handcuffing customizations to solve the task at hand or communicate to existing systems.

Full-featured MES systems with a high degree of flexibility are becoming the solution of choice for automotive Tier 1 suppliers and OEMs with complex and sometimes conflicting requirement sets, such as single unit orders (mass customization), global execution, Six Sigma levels of quality, Lean manufacturing environments and precise delivery (packaging and timing).

To be sure, there are now even more ways to skin the MES cat; manufacturers must consider current applicability and future flexibility, the total cost of ownership and continuity of product and service.

Author Information
Gregory M. DeLaere is the founder, president and CEO of VIA Information Tools.

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