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Manufacturing execution systems now key in digitized world

MES technology links plant systems to business applications. As more devices go digital over the Internet, it's positioned to be the control center for digital manufacturing.

Connected devices are and always have been critical to manufacturing execution systems. As information management...

systems focused on manufacturing plant-floor data collection and control, they initially evolved in infrastructures of their own to leverage technical -- as opposed to business-oriented -- hardware and software capable of handling the types of data that emanate from plant equipment, in the short timeframes required -- milliseconds and microseconds.

But plant networks for connecting MES to equipment and controllers mostly ran on an Ethernet platform, a structure, it turns out, that is very similar to Internet Protocol. What's more, today there is little or no distinction between the infrastructure for manufacturing execution systems and ERP, CRM and other business applications.

This all means that the formerly isolated world of plant-floor MES is now readily connectable to ERP and the Internet. Manufacturing execution systems are evolving to take advantage of increased visibility and the proliferation of smart, connected Internet of Things (IoT) devices to improve process control, provide early detection of changing conditions, monitor equipment for predictive and preventive maintenance, and more.

MES takes a central role in digital manufacturing

Although the definition of what, exactly, an MES is and does is subject to interpretation, and changes over time, the three primary functions generally considered to be part of manufacturing execution systems are: scheduling and dispatching, quality management and data collection.

Business systems have an entirely different definition of "real time": If a transaction makes it into the system in a few hours or by the end of the shift, that's good enough for the general ledger, but not nearly good enough for plant-floor data and controls.

From a manufacturing execution systems perspective, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), the popular term for the proliferation of smart, connected devices invading the plant ecosystem, is more evolution than revolution. Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) equipment has been around for decades, as have programmable logic controllers (PLCs), Computerized Numeric Control (CNC), plant-floor networks and MES software. The factory has been digital for many years, although there is still, and will always be, room for expansion of that digital footprint.

Now that the rest of the world is catching up, deploying connected "things" in huge numbers, the plant and its manufacturing execution systems can benefit from increased availability of smart devices and the dropping prices that result from high-volume production.

While some observers have labelled this evolution digital manufacturing, others prefer to use the term Manufacturing 4.0. MESA International, the association for the MES community, called it Smart Manufacturing and defined it as "an initiative to bring about a revolution in manufacturing business strategy, turning traditional factories from cost centers into profitable innovation centers. Smart Manufacturing is fueled by a convergence of technologies and process improvement initiatives with the potential to radically improve the way manufacturers thread processes and systems in the entire product value chain in order to deliver more options and new service models to customers." It names the integration of smart machines; IIoT; and such information technologies as cloud, 3D modeling, mobile computing, analytics and integration platforms among those fueling Smart Manufacturing.

Digital manufacturing has captured a lot of mind share, but actual implementation will take time. In the recent, second annual Industry 4.0 Global Expert Survey by McKinsey & Company, 300 manufacturers and technology providers in the U.S., Germany and Japan were asked about their plans and accomplishments. The majority had plans and noted that they were enthusiastic about the potential for improved performance as a result of implementing these digital manufacturing technologies. Half of U.S. respondents and 56% of German participants reported "good or substantial" progress. Only 16% of manufacturers in Japan reported having made good or substantial progress over the past year.

MESA's roadmap for Smart Manufacturing

In its roadmap for implementing Smart Manufacturing, MESA emphasized that it's really not about the technology. Of the recommended six steps, the first five are all about vision, culture and the human side of the transition to a more digital manufacturing world:

1. Review business structure for future market strategy.
2. Establish evolution milestones for the journey.
3. Nurture new culture around new vision.
4. Build partnerships to support the new vision.
5. Address skills gap for knowledge workers.
6. Evolve the information technology infrastructure.

The first point is perhaps the most important: Make sure that the technology supports the business strategy and needs. Digitizing for digitizing's sake doesn't generate any benefits for the business. The next four points are important project-management and change-management methods that help ensure that any implementation is carefully folded into the organization. 

Next Steps

Learn about the Industrial Internet Consortium

Understand 3D printing and Smart Manufacturing

Hear expert advice on upgrading an MES

This was last published in April 2016

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