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MES software evolving as shop floor processes generate more data

Manufacturing execution systems (MES) vendors are building more functionality into their software than ever. Find out how this MES software trend has manufacturers using MES systems to improve supply chain and shop floor processes.

MES technology is changing fast. The next manufacturing execution systems (MES) software package you buy will undoubtedly exert much more control over your manufacturing operations than your current MES software does.

"Three or four years ago, MES was the nucleus of the work order in a plant and used to drive compliant execution steps," said Roddy Martin, senior vice president research fellow at AMR Research. "Today companies want the MES to be the center of manufacturing operations excellence for multiple sites."

Honeywell Technical Solutions Inc. (HTSI), a business unit of Honeywell Aerospace, was witness to this MES software trend. The unit assembles and manufactures electronic components for the Air Force Satellite Control Network. Jeffrey Small, integrated supply chain leader at HTSI, realized that his organization had too many tools addressing different aspects of manufacturing execution.

"We had a staggering number of MES tools and applications from many vendors," Small said. His team undertook an analysis of all the tools in an effort to streamline the manufacturing execution architecture.

"The question was how much of these tools were being used," Small said. "And the answer was, not very much. Yet, just having them cost a lot of money."

MES systems drawing data from shop floors, factories
After studying the situation for 12 months, the team concluded that HTSI needed an integrated MES suite, not a hodgepodge of point tools.

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Small's team also realized, however, that "traditional MES products would not do what we needed," he said. What the HTSI team wanted was a cross-factory, Web-connected MES that could support millions of transactions per minute as they collected data from diverse shop floor devices all over the world. They also wanted an MES that could collect data more efficiently from the different shop floors and devices.

Small's team forced to rethink not only what was needed from a MES system, but also how to regard each factory in the supply chain. "We began to look at each factory as just another supplier," Small said. They wanted a Web-based tool to collect and access the same data from every supplier and factory. They also wanted to see work flows through every supplier/factory and to reroute work where necessary.

At the end of this year-long reappraisal of manufacturing execution systems, the company opted for FlexNet from Apriso Corp., an integrated MES suite that can be extended beyond a single shop floor. Apriso was "not just slapping a Web browser on 20-year old MES technology," Small said. "Our research showed that Apriso was the first with this level of capability."

A second factor in HTSI's decision to deploy FlexNet was its use of a service-oriented architecture (SOA). "SOA broke the single point product model," said Muthuraman Ramasamy, an analyst with Frost & Sullivan Research. "It is one of the key enablers for products like FlexNet and others."

Another advantage of FlexNet, according to Ramasamy, is that the software provides a high return on investment, which"can often be achieved within a six-month deployment period."

Demand grows for MES in multiple manufacturing environments
Discovering that previous-generation MES products could not meet its requirements was not an experience unique to HTSI. "There is a clear trend to rationalize and standardize on a suite of manufacturing systems on top of a base platform," said Greg Gorbach, vice president, ARC Advisory Group, a research firm in Dedham, Mass. The resulting integrated systems form what many researchers call collaborative production management (CPM), a series of solutions that integrate all manufacturing systems, providing the real-time visibility, execution, tracking, reporting and optimizing of manufacturing processes.

However, one research firm's CPM may be another's MOM. Frost & Sullivan considers FlexNet a manufacturing operations management (MOM) solution. MOM enables global visibility and control over manufacturing operations, which "must be delivered with multiple siloed applications and then integrated to match functionality," according to F&S. It was this ability to transcend MES that appealed to Small's team.

With requirements for MES technology changing fast, there's a chance your incumbent MES vendor may not be able to adapt. Many MES vendors remain stuck with old data models that focus on a single work order and provide nominal analysis. "Today, companies want MES to be their center of manufacturing operations," AMR's Martin said. "This means looking across multiple orders, multiple batches, even multiple factories and doing more analysis than ever before. Most vendors aren't ready for this."

According to Martin, the new MES requires two things: a Web-based services architecture and a flexible data model that encompasses scheduling data, quality information and other types of data. Many current vendors in the MES software market are "scrambling to find a new data model," he said. "This is a big change, and many traditional vendors cannot support this architectural capability."

About the author: Alan Radding researches, analyzes and writes about business and technology. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Business Week and numerous technology publications and on web sites such as

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