mes, erp, production execution, manufacturing execution system

As QAD’s Director of Industrial and High Tech verticals, I travel the world imparting words of wisdom and expertise on all things related to these industries. Well, maybe not, but I do know a lot about the types of solutions these market verticals use and need the most, like QAD Production Execution, for instance. In this installment of “You Asked, We Answered”, I will answer commonly asked questions about Manufacturing Execution Systems, why manufacturers need them to be successful, some of the challenges manufacturing customers face on a daily basis and the solutions designed to help them.

What is MES and Why is it Important for Manufacturers?

Glenn: MES stands for “Manufacturing Execution System”, and to be totally literal, it’s the system that oversees the execution of manufacturing. To me it’s easiest to take it one letter at a time and put it into context with Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP). The key letters in ERP are the “P” for Planning and the “E” for Enterprise. At its basic level ERP translates gross demand at the Enterprise level, defines and identifies materials and resources and creates a set of “executable” orders to deliver against the demand. The key letter in MES is the “E” for execution. Manufacturing is executed at both the plant and machine level. All manufacturers have to execute the orders to transform the material and labor into the finished goods. Technically all manufacturers have an MES. However, to what degree it is automated or computerized varies greatly across industries and processes. The execution system for certain manufacturers can still consist of paper-based directives and manual processes.

Is there a Standard List of Functions that are Contained in a MES?

Glenn: That is a fantastic question without a definitive answer. There are international standards bodies such as ISA and MESA that have defined a finite number of “modules” or sets of functionality. There are consultants and analysts that will provide a different definition. There are also MES software providers that will have a defined set of capabilities that align with their respective offerings. The bottom line is that all of these views overlap and support the primary function of Execution. I like to think of MES capability as revolving around three basic elements of manufacturing; the production order, the human resources and the equipment.

Production orders include the definition of the work to be done, both operator and machine directives, and the associated transaction and quality history is captured for potential costing, labor calculations, the foundation of traceability and analytics supporting continuous improvement. Operator identification is necessary to complete reporting, capture labor and can be verified for training certification. Equipment can be monitored automatically or based on operator reporting of status and drives both insights into performance and protects capital investment through coordinated equipment maintenance. The degree of definition and correspondingly monitoring of these functions varies from manufacturing process to process. A highly automated batch process that mixes chemicals in a sealed vessel clearly needs a different approach than a manual assembly of a high tech medical device.

Do I Need an MES?

Glenn: Simple answer: “Yes.” As I said before, all manufacturers have an MES. It might simply be a set of paper-based standard operating procedures that define the work to be done and the data to be collected during execution. The answer is more complex if your question is, “Do I need to implement a formal set of MES software and hardware?”. Historically, manufacturers have addressed the need for execution with a spectrum of approaches that include paper-based systems, extensions of existing factory floor systems, customization of adjacent systems such as ERP, writing their own purpose-built solution and of course buying an MES “product” from an MES vendor. The variability of modern manufacturing, the complexity of the manufacturing processes and pressure to drive productivity and profitability typically require most manufacturers to invest at some level in the automation of manufacturing execution.

What is the Difference Between ERP and MES?

Glenn: A simplified answer would be that ERP is all about the planning of production orders while MES is all about the execution. A more interesting question might be: where does ERP stop and MES begin, and what does that hand-off look like? Ultimately, a manufacturer wants a holistic approach that supports their manufacturing environment that would preferably not require complex interfaces and would allow for a single view of production. In many current cases, manufacturers fill the gap between ERP with spreadsheets or complex and fragile batch data loads. This information gap is a hindrance to true collaboration between the planning and operational functions and can result in excess expediting and limited ability to adapt to changes in the demand. QAD has created operational extensions (QAD Production Execution) of its ERP that provide a capability that would meet the academic definition of MES functions. The ERP and operational functions are tightly coupled which results in real-time knowledge across the organization. Planners immediately know the current execution progress against existing orders and Operations has the more recent set of priorities against the current group of orders. This level of collaboration is virtually impossible to achieve with separate and distinct ERP and MES solutions.

Does this Mean that ERP Can Connect Directly to Shop Floor Machines?

Glenn: Again, the short answer is, “Yes.” I think that this topic is worthy of further details in terms of why an ERP system would want to get data directly from a machine. For example, progress against an order would certainly be of interest to the planning function in terms of backflushing material consumption, possibly adjusting future orders or making use of the soon-to-be-available machine. This makes perfect sense for highly automated production environments with relatively low product mix. A consumer goods manufacturer that is making thousands of the same bottle of detergent in a single shift would want the equipment to report directly as it would be far more accurate than an operator count. Much of manufacturing is done on smaller lots of products with less machine automation. In these environments, operator transactions may be the source of progress and triggers for material movement or backflush. In both environments, the equipment can be monitored to capture unplanned downtime or other information of interest in terms of asset management. QAD Production Execution includes the technological capability to communicate to shop floor machines and support a range of environments.

Is this How IoT is Used in Manufacturing?

Glenn: Certainly the direct connection by ERP to machines is one element of the usefulness of the Internet of Things (IoT). The established connection to the machines affords the collection of additional data beyond what might be of interest to the ERP. During the execution of a production order, there are a number of machine settings such as spindle speed or feed that a manufacturing engineer has designated as optimal for this particular part. The tracking of these settings and any local modification by the operator can provide the basis for a better understanding of the actual production process. In addition, there are a number of process variables that can be monitored, such as temperature, that may be contributing to the quality of the product or the yield of the process. These settings and variables are collected in the context of the production order and the SKU being produced. This contextual data allows for comparisons between production orders for the same or similar products and is the basis for a root cause analysis for quality concerns and potential process improvements to drive efficiency. Technology such as a data lake for contextual storage of vast amounts of IoT-sourced data and rich analytics to evaluate the data provide great potential for manufacturers. QAD Production Execution as an extension of QAD Adaptive ERP provides this capability. Of utmost importance is the contextual connection of process data with production order and item being produced.

What Does an Effective MES or Operational Extension of ERP Look Like to the Operator?

Glenn: Ideally, the operator has a focused and simple interface that allows him or her to be the most effective in of all things “operating” the equipment and his or her assigned tasks. Ultimately the goal is to have the operator focus on the production of parts or products. All interaction with a terminal should be as contextual and supportive of that goal. For example, the view at the operator station should be limited to a very finite number of orders. Within the ERP there are most likely weeks and months of orders that are planned, but at the operator level only released orders that are immediately available for execution should be displayed. The operator interface should be very visual without hierarchical menus that require multi-level navigation. The operator should remain focused on a very limited scope of activity and allow for the least invasive capture of data and management of current production. In many environments, this can mean a touch screen that allows the operator to interact without a mouse or even a keyboard. The extended ERP approach allows a planner to release a new “hot” order and it can immediately be accessed within this limited scope of view. Many legacy systems will struggle with the inevitable last-second change and require manual steps and temporary paperwork, which is a formula for inefficiency and cumbersome workarounds.

What are Other Aspects of Directly Connecting Operational Functions with ERP?

Glenn: Collaboration between planning and operations cannot be overstated in terms of value in the modern adaptive manufacturing environment. Planners can immediately know the current execution progress against existing orders. This may seem like a simple capability, but the impact can be great; a classic example in the interaction between sales and planning. Frequently, a field salesperson will call in with a late-breaking order with a tight deadline. “We can all be heroes but we have to deliver the order by Friday,” historically starts a whirlwind of a research project. The planner checks for raw material and then tries to contact the plant floor via email or phone tag to determine the feasibility. The time lost here in querying against multiple systems is often the difference between success and failure. With an integrated approach between the planning function and operations, the planner can immediately see the progress of a current order being run on the required equipment and make a first pass determination of feasibility. A well-informed phone call to the shop floor that indicates the understanding of potential windows of opportunity. This scenario is much more preferred when compared to legacy approaches of open-ended questions or worse yet the dump of a surprise order that is unachievable. 

How Does this Integral Approach compare to Purpose-built MES Approaches?

Glenn: A purpose-built MES is often very tightly coupled with a specific manufacturing process and doesn’t necessarily translate well to different manufacturing processes. For example, an MES may have been deployed for the blending process of a specialty chemical. The MES may have a deep capability in terms of the management of the actual vessel and the control of the equipment. However, the tailoring for blending results in an approach that is typically not well suited for the bottling line that ultimately receives the chemical to package for customers. The packaging line is more like a discrete manufacturing process and its requirements are significantly different and would require a different MES approach. This range of production processes is typical for many manufacturers that have varying processes within the same plant and is even more complicated for diverse enterprises with multiple plants across the globe. The integral ERP and operational approach of QAD Production Execution does not attempt to replace the deep process knowledge and control that has been purpose-built. Instead, it extends the ERP into all of the operational sections for functionality that is common among the areas such as the reporting of order progress or the capture of operator labor. QAD Production Execution can be applied across a diverse production facility and results in an integral, singular collaborative connection between planning and operations.

I hope you found these insights on the subject of MES and the differences between an MES and an ERP system valuable. If you want to hear more from me or other QAD experts, please submit your questions in the comments section below. Let us know of a topic you would like to hear more about…If you ask, we’ll try and answer!