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MES can function only as a core competency

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Buzzwords such as Industry 4.0, smart factory and smart products have re-ignited the efforts of many companies on the road to the intelligent factory. The software systems used play a central role in this process; they digitize the production process and, even more so, the entire value chain. MES are increasingly taking center stage here. Many new providers are pushing into the market, want a piece of the pie, and seek to establish themselves with a wide variety of business models. The definitions and areas of application for the term ‘MES’ are logically becoming more and more diverse, and the boundaries are blurring.

 

Harald Horner is Head of Product Management at Industrie Informatik and knows the demands that a modern production company places on production-optimizing software. In the following commentary, he explains what is important when selecting an MES.

 

If you look at the system architecture of a manufacturing company as a pyramid in which the MES serves as a link between the automation level and the higher-level ERP system, it is hardly surprising that attempts are now being made from several sides to penetrate the MES market. ERP providers, e.g., with their rough planning background try to serve detailed planning needs and justify their advantages by delivering a combined solution; the main aim here is to provide direct feedback from the machines to the ERP system. On the other hand, the plant engineers and automation engineers emphasize direct coupling between their own MES and their plants.

Of course, the promoted advantages sound tempting, but in practice you need to find the right balance between as few software systems as possible and customized, integrated solutions. Standardized connectivity between the systems is thus less a unique advantage over the competition and far more the basic prerequisite on the road to smart factory manufacturing.

 

Standards meet customization programming

The automation level is very much characterized by customized solutions. Plant-specific isolated solutions depending on manufacturer and industry are unfortunately still widespread here. This is partly because automation engineers closely and almost uncompromisingly adapt their (MES) systems to the machine level and their plants. However, a modern MES must embrace its responsibility as a central data hub. This requires a unifying layer across all systems, and the credo here is standards instead of customization. Only thus can data be centrally collected, managed, processed and, e.g., transferred to the ERP system. The use of technologies such as OPC-UA enhances standardized machine. It is therefore irrelevant which machines are in a machine park. A higher-level MES, which is detached from the automation level, becomes the central data hub for the production through compliance with standards, redundancy-free master data storage, and the lowest possible number of interfaces.

 

Focus on the value chain

Another important aspect is how an MES can deal with digital transformation along the entire value chain. Although the consistent capture of machine data is an important basis here, it is also only one of several important factors on the way to the intelligent factory.

Efficiency is one of the major tenets of smart factory efforts. In order to really achieve this efficiency, an MES provider must look beyond his horizon and find points of contact to almost all areas of the company. This can be illustrated very well using the example of a traceability function. Already an important elimination criterion for many customers, this requires seamless communication among very diverse company departments, both in production and beyond, for consistent batch recording and tracking. Efficient unification of business management and machine-related processes can be managed only by a software system that also acts between these levels, and this is true neither for an ERP nor for the automation level. The view that an MES has over the entire value chain has another positive effect. The data collected in this way forms the basis for operative business intelligence measures that can support a continuous improvement process and thus raise the desired efficiency to a new, unimagined level.

 

Production environment and software in harmony

When you are shopping for the right MES provider, one factor in particular is of decisive relevance in addition to the product-specific features and infrastructure orientation: consulting competence in the planning and implementation process.

Before you implement an MES, you need to find a partner who understands your production processes and takes the entire value creation process into account. Perfectly harmonizing the production environment and software requires sound know-how in both areas. Understandably, this core competence can be attributed only to an MES provider with expertise in the field of production optimization. One benefit of this is that already in the planning phase this provider can determine which data he needs in which form from the machine level and from the plant manufacturers or automation engineers in order to integrate these data into his system with as little effort as possible. This is supported by standardized interfaces such as OPC UA. The advantages for the customer are obvious here: Uniform connections create a well-founded database, improved comparability, avoidance of redundancies, and a production environment that is ready for future extensions and adaptations.

Toward the top of the automation pyramid, it is particularly important to create clean processes and high-quality data transfer between ERP and MES. A competent MES provider usually has proven and often certified standard interfaces to all well-known ERP providers. In addition, the provider needs sound knowledge of the functionalities and processes of the respective ERP system. The result can be, e.g., highly efficient interaction between rough planning (ERP) and detailed planning (MES).

 

Conclusion

The high relevance of MES for manufacturing in terms of the smart factory is causing more and more suppliers to enter this market. ERP providers and automation companies are also joining in and want to capture the market with new MES solutions. What may sound like a logical consequence at first glance, in most cases does not turn out to be the best choice on closer inspection.

Instead, what is needed is an MES whose use is independent of the rest of the system architecture. It should not matter which ERP or which machines are currently in use; a professional MES provider must communicate and interact with all of them. The MES provider must maintain a general view of the entire value chain of a company and also have sound knowledge of production processes. Only thus can an MES demonstrate its true strengths, as a core competence.

Harald Horner is Team Leader of Product Management at Industrie Informatik and knows the demands that a modern production company places on production-optimizing software.

When you are choosing the right MES provider, not only the product-specific features are decisive, but also the consulting competence in the planning and implementation process.