Manufacturing Execution Systems are growing in popularity. But how do you tell if they are right for you? Malcolm Wheatley finds out.
At Esher-based baked products manufacturer The Cookie Man, the business’s ongoing drive for improved manufacturing efficiencies was being increasingly hampered by a lack of critical data.
And with leading supermarkets such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrison’s and Waitrose as customers, such improvements were clearly an important part of the business’s competitive edge.
The problem? Its ten year old Lakeview ERP system – a very popular pick among food manufacturers, and a system with which the company was otherwise very satisfied – couldn’t provide the required level of in-depth visibility into manufacturing operations. It was, in short, a typical ERP system, rather than a tool focused on factoryfloor performance and data gathering.
“To get the level of visibility that we needed, we were increasingly having to develop ‘workarounds’,” explains Cookie Man general manager Jayson Scheib. “The result was a growing number of spreadsheets and paper-based systems – none of which could ‘talk’ to each other, and which involved frequent re-keying of the same data.” It’s a common complaint. Scratch a growing number of manufacturers, and you’ll increasingly hear the same refrain. What’s more, it seems that it’s a chant given fresh impetus by the tough trading conditions that most manufacturers have experienced over the last few years.
ERP, they’ll tell you, is great at determining which products need to be made, and by when: ‘the plan’, in other words. And for those manufacturers with complex order books, complex products, or factory floors characterised by process constraints, Advanced Planning and Scheduling (APS) systems will then take that ERPbased plan and break it down into machine-bymachine, job-by-job schedules.
But what’s lacking is a way of disseminating those ERP-based plans and APS-derived schedules to the factory floor resources that are responsible for carrying them out and then capturing highlygranular data on what happens on the factory floor as these plans and schedules are carried out. Data, in short, that can be used to fine-tune manufacturing processes, and drive forward improvements in production efficiency.
All the functions, in fact, that are undertaken by a class of software applications collectively known as Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES).
At The Cookie Man the implementation of an MES system acquired from Bracknell-based Mestec in early 2011 has transformed the company’s visibility into its manufacturing processes. The spreadsheets and paper-based systems that manufacturing management previously relied on have been eliminated, reports Scheib. And driven by newlyavailable hard factual data, a fresh wave of factoryfloor improvements is underway.
“We’ve got instantaneous access to the data that we need: we don’t have to wait for people to type numbers from a paper system into the ERP system, or wait for a spreadsheet to be uploaded to ERP,” he explains. “We’re capturing – and then leveraging – a lot of data that might not be relevant to ERP, but which is vital to manufacturing, and to manufacturing improvement. It really has been a revolution.” And it’s a prospect that is attracting many more Lakeview customers, explains Mark Greatrex, the ERP vendor’s chief executive. Five years ago, he explains, his customer base “probably had zero interest” in MES. No longer: today, “perhaps 10-15% are actively expressing an interest in some form of MES.” But, firmly focused on its core ERP offering, Lakeview has chosen to meet that interest through a partnership with Mestec—while still providing its customers a single Lakeview point of front line support contact. “Any questions that we can’t deal with, we pass on to Mestec—but we hope to be able to deal with all of them,” sums up Greatrex.
Yet despite such successes, many manufacturers remain unclear as to what an MES does, why they might benefit from acquiring one, and exactly how it might interact with their ERP system. And in truth, ERP system vendors themselves haven’t always helped the process of clarification.
“If you talk to the ERP vendors, MES can be a highly confusing topic,” charges Julie Fraser, principal industry analyst at specialist manufacturing industry analyst firm Cambashi. “They’ll tell you that you don’t need it; or that if you do need it, then they can offer it—or that they’ve just bought a company that does MES, or can offer it via a partnership that they have just entered into with a specialist MES provider.” Brian Holliday, divisional director for industry automation at industrial giant—and MES provider— Siemens, agrees.
“The ERP vendors have been talking about addressing the MES market, but we’ve seen little evidence of that in their products,” he notes. Despite which, he adds, MES applications have quietly gained a growing fan club among manufacturers who have discovered the technology. Siemens’ own SIMATIC IT offering, for instance, counts manufacturers such as Henkel, Whirlpool and Carlsberg among its users.
“MES vendors are no longer having to educate the marketplace so much about what exactly MES offers,” sums up Holliday. “There are a growing number of credible MES vendors with customers who are happy to stand up and talk about the benefits that they’ve derived from MES.”
That said, MES isn’t applicable to every manufacturer. Talk to experts, and it’s clear that characteristics such as process and routing complexity, together with the extent of factory-floor automation, hugely determine the extent to which MES solutions can add value.
“The more important manufacturing and manufacturing performance is to a company’s business model, the more relevant that MES will be for them,” states Hugh Williams, managing director of High Wycombe-based Hughenden Consulting.
“But in the right circumstances, you can undeniably get measurable benefits from MES that you can’t get from ERP.” Also at issue is the extent – and direction – of MES’ integration with ERP. Which system, for instance, should be the ‘system of record’: ERP or MES? Bills of Material, routings and recipes are common to both, notes Jack Payne, vice-president of enterprise software at CDC Software. And duplicated data is not just costly, he points out, but raises the prospect of errors through a lack of consistency.
Another issue is the sheer volume of data that is captured by MES, and how, or if, it should be shared with the rest of the business.
“Not all the data captured by MES is relevant for ERP – it’s often at too fine a level of detail,” says Infor’s regional vice-president for UK sales, Phil Burgess. “ERP wants to know when a batch has been started, and when it has been finished: it doesn’t need to know about every individual component or product as it is produced, or every individual operation in a machining centre.” And APS complicates the picture further, adds Mike Novels, chief executive of APS specialist Preactor. Sometimes, he says, the data flow of works orders goes from the ERP system to the APS system and then onto MES, and other times from ERP to MES and then APS.
“There’s no right or wrong way: it’s down to individual circumstances,” he says. That said, a recently-inked partnership between Preactor and American interfacing specialists Missing Link Technologies makes such data links more straightforward than they once were. Pre-built links have already been created for Syspro and Microsoft Dynamics AX ERP systems, and can be downloaded from Preactor’s website, says Novels. And, he adds, more such links are under development.
But to some manufacturers, such integration complexities understandably help tip the scales towards choosing an MES from an ERP vendor. That way, goes the argument, data is stored centrally – and stored once – and integration is the responsibility of the ERP vendor, not the manufacturer.
SAP, for instance, offers several MES solutions, depending on how complex the customer’s requirements are, explains Paul Boris, SAP’s global vice-president for advanced manufacturing operations and solutions.
Simple MES requirements are met through the company’s Manufacturing Integration and Intelligence (MII) module, which has been part of the core SAP suite for a decade. For more complex requirements, he adds, the ERP giant’s acquisition of MES vendor Visiprise in 2008 adds a ‘full capability MES’ to the ERP giant’s product portfolio.
However, SAP’s offerings for smaller manufacturers – such as SAP Business ByDesign – don’t yet include an MES capability, although that is under active consideration, says Boris. As ever, the barrier to adoption by smaller manufacturers remains a lack of clarity as to what MES can offer, he explains: “It’s still a very confused space. Put four people in a room, and you’ll get six opinions about what MES does.” Which is why The Cookie Man’s implementation of the Mestec MES – via its Lakeview ERP system – stands out as a significant step forward in MES adoption among smaller manufacturers. Of interest, too, is the ‘ROI as you go’ implementation model advocated by Mestec, which sees a carefully phased introduction deliver benefits at a pace that doesn’t overload the smaller manufacturer’s resources.
“We did it step by step, gradually adding aspects of the MES toolkit to aspects of the production process, generating benefits and ROI at each stage,” says Mestec managing director Jeremy Harford as he describes the MES implementation at The Cookie Man. “And then, when we joined them all up, there was a cumulative benefit, and an even bigger ROI.” Cookie Man general manager Scheib concurs: “For smaller manufacturers like us, a ‘big bang’ approach is impractical. With Mestec, we could target what we wanted to achieve, and tackle it in bite-sized chunks.
It really has been an eye-opening step forward.”