Perfect execution

Manufacturing execution systems are all the rage. But getting the system that’s right for your business involves some careful requirements analysis, says Cimlogic’s Mike Hodge. IT contributing editor Malcolm Wheatley reports.

What’s the ROI of an investment in a manufacturing execution system? Potentially very significant, as many manufacturers would agree.

Simply put, not only do manufacturing execution systems shine a harsh spotlight on how well manufacturing processes are performing, but they also provide control mechanisms to ensure compliance with standard operating procedures and factory-floor scheduling priorities.

And either way, the ROI is attractive – especially so in the case of process improvements delivered as a result of the data that a manufacturing execution system delivers on OEE, for instance.

That’s the good news. The not-so-good news, as again many manufacturers will agree, is that the theoretical benefits of manufacturing execution systems aren’t always achievable in practice.

“There are well-documented case studies of manufacturing execution systems failing to deliver on as much as 10-40% of their intended benefits,” warns Mike Hodge, managing director of Cimlogic, a Yorkshire-based manufacturing execution system consultancy and implementation specialist.

And the result of this failure, he adds, is that manufacturers see an investment in a manufacturing execution system as riskier than an investment in other types of IT system – such as ERP, SCADA, and PLM, for instance. Which can’t be right.

Failure mode

So what goes wrong? Several things, says Hodge, adding that only rarely does the fault lie with the manufacturing execution system itself. For while it is possible for manufacturers to make a mistake in selecting a manufacturing execution system, it’s a mistake that in practice seems not to happen very often.

“Instead, once you start drilling down into why a given manufacturing execution system hasn’t delivered, you quickly come across the same basic list of problems,” he explains. “The system’s objectives weren’t properly defined, for instance. Or the project management processes were inadequate. Or there was a lack of communication between the various parties involved – the board, the factory floor, the IT function, and individual supplier of the manufacturing execution system in question.”

And the root causes behind such failures aren’t difficult to determine, stresses Hodge. Simply put, they boil down to two fundamental misconceptions. First, there’s a common failure to understand exactly what a manufacturing execution system project actually is, and what it will involve; a second, an equally common misconception that the manufacturing customer is best placed to specify what they actually want their manufacturing execution system to deliver.

Heady stuff, to be sure. And in some circles, almost heresy: surely the whole point of any IT system is to give the customer what they want? Quite so, says Hodge, pointing out that what a customer really wants, and what they initially thinking that they want, are two very different things.

“It’s a bit like Apple’s Steve Jobs quoting Henry Ford saying: ‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses’,” he observes. “Or, as Jobs himself said, ‘You can’t ask customers what they want, and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.’”

In other words, he stresses, a successful manufacturing execution system project first of all begins by helping the customer to understand what a manufacturing execution system is, and then helping them to understand what they want from it.

Which, put another way, boils down to making sure that any investment decision regarding a manufacturing execution system reflects the conclusions of a thorough requirements analysis—and a requirements analysis, what’s more, that has been conducted by someone who knows what they’re doing.

Back to basics

“Using a specialist partner for a requirements analysis can transform the prospects for success,” asserts Hodge. “They can look at the ‘As Is’ situation, work with senior management to define a ‘To Be’ end point that reflects the strategic needs of the business, conduct a gap analysis, look at the business’s technology road map, and determine the specific requirements for a manufacturing execution system that will precisely fit the needs of the specific business.”

Moreover, he adds, the same specialist partner can work with the business to provide education and guidance on how to make best use of a manufacturing execution system, provide a sound implementation methodology, and work to build ‘buy in’ from other parts of the business – those parts of the business that will benefit from the deliverables of a properly-specified, and properly project-managed, manufacturing execution system.

Which parts of the business, in particular? The list is surprisingly long, says Hodge, and includes departments and functions that might at first be thought to be entirely indifferent to a factory-floor manufacturing execution system.

“Talk about better factory-floor planning and scheduling, for instance, and the sales function start to see benefits in terms of better order due-date performance,” he suggests. “Likewise, better planning and scheduling – and more reliable equipment, thanks to OEE-driven improvement exercises – means that the maintenance function can at last concentrate on proper preventative maintenance, rather than being continually locked into a cycle of breakdown-and-repair.”

What’s more, adds Hodge, the use of a specialist partner well-versed in manufacturing execution systems can help to avoid another common problem: ‘requirement compromise’, when the high-level strategic business requirements that are to be met by a manufacturing execution system in fact become subordinate to the tactical preferences of another business function. IT functions, for instance, are often guilty of this.

“When an IT function says: ‘a solution must be cloud-based’, or ‘it must use – say – an Oracle database’, what they’re really doing is compromising the search for the ideal manufacturing execution system from a manufacturing point of view,” he stresses. “Don’t make the manufacturing execution system’s requirements subordinate to other requirements: look for the best fit with what the overall business really needs – and not what the IT function prefers to support.”

In short, sums up Hodge, the right partner can make a huge difference to the eventual outcome of a manufacturing execution system project – so, once again, don’t compromise.

“Find the right partner, and engage with them openly, and in a spirit of mutual trust,” he recommends. “The more they understand what you want, they more that they’ll be able to help you achieve it – and achieve it over the long term.”