Is MES On Its Way Out? | Automation.com

Is MES On Its Way Out?

January 172017
Is MES On Its Way Out?

By Bill Lydon, Editor, Automation.com

The convergence of IT and OT is one of the more fascinating trends that has spawned many discussions throughout the industrial space.  At Inductive Automation 2016 Ignition Conference in Folsom California, I had a lively and insightful discussion with an experienced industrial automation professional, debating the future of IT and, specifically, MES (Manufacturing Execution Systems). 

This user, quite smartly, did not want me to use their name since it could create tension with the IT people in the company, so we’re going to call him ‘Otto’ for this piece.  Otto’s company is a large multinational organization that produces complex, high volume applied chemical products. Their varied industrial and consumer base led to  a large mix of variations based on sales demand, and thereby required a range of material flow handling, batch process management, packaging, material handling, and shipping logistics.  Otto has over 20 years of experience including engineering, plant process controls, and MES, and seemed to have a very informed perspective on managing a team responsible for creating and implementing IT solutions for industrial automation projects. These projects included MES, SCADA, HMIs, operational dashboards, enterprise historian, and building factory floor to business system software interfaces. During the course of our conversation, I asked Otto if he thought business enterprise systems will eliminate the need for MES.

The Rise of MES

Manufacturing execution systems (MES) are used in discrete and process manufacturing to track and document the production workflow in the transformation of raw materials, parts, and subassemblies to finished goods.  MES mainly came into existence because enterprise business systems, particularly Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), had historically issued factory work orders and inventory releases on a cycle such as daily or weekly.  Feedback from the plant floor was then entered into the enterprise business system at the end of the cycle to adjust inventories and finished goods accounting to reflect reality.   This is many times referred to as batch processing of data (not to be confused with batch process control). As Otto and I discussed, the challenge faced by manufacturing, in this configuration, there is no real-time visibility of what was happening in the production process between the batch data processing cycles.   The common solution had been MES systems, which accepted work orders, inventory releases and associated information from ERP systems and tracked manufacturing transactions in real-time, thereby providing management and operations with the exact status of production. This enabled manufacturing decision makers to understand how current conditions on the plant floor could be optimized to improve production output.  

Will MES go away?

Many enterprise business system software suppliers have been evolving to handle real-time transaction processing that in theory would eliminate the need for MES. This is where Otto and I got into the meat of our conversation. 

I found our discussion about the future of MES to be particularly instructive.   Otto believes that, in theory, real-time, transaction-based, architected enterprise business systems could include the MES function.  However, due to wide range of business, financial and security-related reasons, system changes take significant time and money and tend to move very slowly.  In practice, the processes defined, along with the requirement for certified program code in enterprise business systems, more often than not create practical barriers to making changes and additions.  Any change or addition is difficult, costly, and traumatic.   Otto suggested that implementing MES functions, outside of the core enterprise system, would streamline the process and allow manufacturing to be more agile.

Is Ignition an Alternative?

Otto and I also discussed the use of Inductive Automation Ignition software as a potential alternative. Ignition software is designed to enable a team to use standard IT tools, and methodologies including Java, Python and SQL databases to create industrial automation applications.  The open platform means there are endless resources available to learn these technologies, and a wealth of knowledge, within IT departments, to leverage. Many functions that can seem innovative and new in the industrial space have been commonplace in IT departments for years.

Being Java-based, Ignition allows the efficient completion of many projects, such as replacing old HMIs that are running older version of Windows. Using Ignition, an application can be rewritten to run efficiently and conform to IT security policies, at a far more minimal cost compared to upgrading.

The MES Debate is Just Starting

The debate about integrating MES functions into business systems or keeping it separate is just starting.   It became obvious in the discussion with Otto that there are number of factors users need to consider in addition to technology that need to be considered before integration of MES functions into business systems.

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