Manufacturing execution systems (MES) software is a critical component of modern manufacturing environments. It collects and analyzes production data, tracks quality control and is often integrated with ERP to monitor manufacturing schedules and ensure delivery of orders. With so much riding on it, manufacturers have good reason to stay on top of the latest MES innovations.
Back in 2007, AMR Research attempted to raise the technological bar for MES, coining one of the year's major buzzwords: Manufacturing 2.0. Following in the vein of Web 2.0, Manufacturing 2.0 referred to next-generation technologies such as blogs, wikis, instant messaging, and user-centric interfaces on the shop floor. It called for a manufacturing service-oriented architecture (SOA) that merges product data management (PDM, process development models, and event-based supply chain collaboration with support for mobile and sensor technologies.
According to Gartner research director Simon Jacobson, a coauthor of the 2007 AMR report, the concept was developed in response to growing interest in mobility, SOA-enabled applications, cloud computing and new paradigms for factory training.
Manufacturing 2.0 was also touted as the solution to some of the problems of traditional MES and ERP systems -- rigid architecture, inability to support new lean and Six Sigma initiatives, difficult and costly MES deployments, and trouble functioning in multiple manufacturing styles.
Three years later, in the wake of a global recession and financial crisis that devastated many manufacturing industries, where do Manufacturing 2.0 and next-generation MES stand?
Whatever happened to Manufacturing 2.0?
Discussion of Web 2.0 -- and consequently Manufacturing 2.0 -- has been scarce in the economically troubled years since 2007. Faced with shrinking IT budgets, many manufacturers have been forced to postpone or downsize plans to upgrade or replace their existing MES infrastructure.
"You have to understand that a lot of the future thinking had to take a backseat in the last months as we tried to put a bandage on [damage caused by the recession], but this concept still has appeal," said Jacobson. The interest hasn't diminished, but manufacturing software vendors have been slow to apply Web 2.0 concepts, he said. While MES deployments continue to be mostly in-house, some companies want to begin using MES in the cloud to share designs and specifications.
Julie Fraser, principal industry analyst and president of Cambashi Inc., agreed that next-generation MES adoption has been slower than anticipated. "Most [MES] software providers are in a position where they have substantial customer bases and investments with the older style software," Fraser said. "This will not vanish rapidly, and many of these companies are also not terribly well equipped to partner with the companies that might help them enable SOA, business process management [BPM], business activity monitoring [BAM], and social media tools providers."
Fraser has seen recent progress toward Manufacturing 2.0 ideals, however. Some vendors have made strides toward adopting more user-centric interfaces in their MES and ERP software, and mobility is becoming more common through the use of pervasive sensors, networks and computing. Users are starting to add onto their MES and ERP infrastructures incrementally instead of doing "rip and replace" implementations. Product data management and process development tools are also being used together more often in a variety of manufacturing environments, including aerospace, Fraser said.
The state of MES software today
Many of the recent advances in MES technology have their origins in next-generation manufacturing concepts. Supply chain collaboration -- a main tenet of Manufacturing 2.0 -- is one of the most prevalent MES trends seen by the analysts.
"The functionality itself hasn't changed; if you're still on site, you'll need the basics of MES -- technology around work orders, scheduling, operations intelligence," Jacobson said. "Where people are starting to think ahead is in moving the need to execute [MES] from a single site to a network."
Greg Gorbach, vice president of collaborative manufacturing at ARC Advisory Group, noted that supply chain collaboration efforts are moving beyond the scope of traditional, in-house MES software.
"It's important to recognize that 'MES' is a term most often applied to a narrow plant-floor application," Gorbach said, "while the biggest trend is toward using an operations platform approach that allows manufacturing operations to tie together all of their plant-floor operations systems, including MES, EAM, etc. and connect to business systems and other processes."
"'MES' is just a part of manufacturing operations management (MOM)," he said. "These systems are being driven from the top down in organizations because manufacturers want to be able to interact with their distributed plant floor more effectively, so as to better respond to their customers and the needs of the marketplace."
Fraser pointed to plant metrics -- which include dashboards, operational intelligence and analytics -- as among the top-selling technologies in manufacturing. "In some cases, [plant metrics are] being integrated with the pieces of MES that allow the people to also do their work -- the BPM and workflow approach," she said.
MES software developments lacking in some areas
Despite these advances, MES software lags in areas that are seeing growing interest from users. According to Jacobson, MES integration with other manufacturing software is a widely requested feature, but few MES vendors have responded. "Everyone talks about integration, but no one's really delivering it," he said.
The blame doesn't fall entirely on the vendors; customers must do the research needed to identify their technology needs and articulate them to vendors, according to Jacobson. "Sometimes, customers aren't sure what they're looking for," he said. "Folks start off saying, 'We need MES,' because that's the way they view manufacturing, but it's more important to be looking at problems within the whole plant."
IT budget cuts in hard economic times have also made many in manufacturing -- an industry already hesitant to invest in software -- even slower to adopt the new technology.
"Manufacturing lags other industries in the use of nearly every technology," Fraser said. "Because production is the mission-critical discipline or area within these companies, it is often slowest to change. Social media and Software as a Service [SaaS] are two obvious areas where other applications are ahead of MES."
Gorbach agreed that manufacturers have been -- and will most likely continue to be -- slow to adopt SaaS technology. "Expect [SaaS adoption] to be difficult at the plant floor level, where the culture needs to change before there will be wide acceptance," he said. "Even then, SaaS will be limited to those applications where it can be shown that sufficient real-time availability can be assured so that manufacturing is not disrupted."
What does the future hold for MES?
The future of MES software depends on the vendors' ability to respond swiftly to customer demands. This is especially true in areas like integration with other software systems, where MES users have been requesting new functionality for some time. "Clients are demanding integration with product lifecycle management (PLM) especially," Jacobson said. "But the tech market is taking a while to respond."
Fraser also predicted that MES integration will play a key role in creating the next generation of MES software. "I expect to see greater integration, collaboration, and even blurring of category lines among the applications and technologies that have played in the plant," she said. Examples of this collaboration include software running in control systems, sensors playing an active role in optimization, inventory management software in the plant, and better connections between enterprise and warehouse systems.
Another potential area for MES advances is support for multi-enterprise or outsourced manufacturing models. "The products can do some of that today," Fraser said. "But I expect to see it more formally introduced as a template or function rather than simply one option for how to use more standard plant information functionality."
Manufacturers will be keeping an eye on the Internet and gauging the value of Web 2.0 technologies. According to Gorbach, areas such as social media, virtualization, mobility and visibility will become increasingly important in manufacturing IT.
It will also be a critical time for those looking to make a business case for MES cloud computing. "The next three years will figure out the potential for the cloud," Jacobson said.
Fraser offered some advice to manufacturing IT professionals who are looking to the future of Manufacturing 2.0 and MES software. "Listen and learn from everyone involved [in manufacturing IT decisions], but realize that there will be naysayers and you must not allow them to prevent progress," she said. "Hone your change management skills to deal with the new opportunities you have to leverage the knowledge and skills of every employee in your facility."