This is nothing new, MES (for Manufacturing Execution Systems) are a very important link in the monitoring of production performance. They provide the link between sensors, actuators and PLCs, which are essential for production data feedback, and the ERP systems that have become the standard in global production management over the last century.
But behind the acronym MES lies a wide variety of systems, with different sizes and functionalities. Most of them are so large that they are replacing ERPs and are rapidly becoming true “gas factory” systems that can only communicate with a limited number of automated production machines.
In a context of technological proliferation, this observation leads a large number of industrialists to take an interest in “expert bricks”, less complete but more competitive and ergonomic production monitoring systems that specialize in a limited number of functions provided by the most complete MES.
What does MES do?
The main objective of an MES, production management, is to manage the manufacturing orders according to the reality of the resources and to inform in return the ERP of the stocks and productions. In the 4.0 movement, accurate feedback on the state of resources is a vital ingredient of performance. Some even see the MES as the heart of the intelligent factory.
Today, the MES looks like a Swiss knife and its functionalities are much broader. ISA 95 has defined up to 11 functions for him: Resource Management / Production Dispatching / Data Collection and Acquisition / Quality Management / Manufacturing Process Management / Planning and Monitoring / Performance Analysis / Operations and Scheduling Management / Documentation Management / Workforce Management / Maintenance Management.
MES quickly took its place in the “product location, physical movement and batch management” layer in level 2 of the original CIM (Common Information Model). This layer ensures communication between level 3 occupied by CAPMs and ERPs, and level 1 of automation and SCADA systems for machine control.
The memory of ERP projects is very fresh in the minds of industrialists, and MESs have followed the same path: “hassle” installations lasting several months, with sometimes obscure, often tinkered with, always tedious development. When we reserve intelligence for the thinking and decision-making head that is ERP, when we try to trivialize the muscles that are the automatisms within the workshops, the MES still has the dirty job of making it all work “for real” in the factory.
Between field communication with sensors and PLCs and the continuous inter-compatibility required with ERP-type software, building an MES has become an obstacle course, especially since certain functions compete with other company software packages.
Even though technological innovation is driving MES vendors to cut prices, cost remains a major weakness of these technologies, especially when coupled with the non-use of the full range of features offered in “all-in-one” packages. The complex integration of this type of system, with its cross-functional and multi-disciplinary features, generally entails additional costs (subsequent to a very high “standard” starting price) to cover the intervention of technicians dedicated to hardware and software configuration and end-user training.
Integration represents an additional headache for MES providers when it comes to being able to communicate with older, non-automated machines that are not affected by PLC communication. Very few are those who can meet this challenge and it is often the most modern machines that are concerned by all the MES functionalities of a workshop.
In the same logic, the field teams with the least experience with new technologies are automatically excluded from the process of parameterization and operation of MES systems, whose operation will only be aimed at a limited number of engineers, often more IT-oriented than production-oriented…
At times when automation systems did not communicate easily with management software, the MES provided the necessary configurable interface. The question of their physical integration and the training of their end-users was therefore less of an issue than it is today and did not completely run counter to a new paradigm: Plug&Play.
For the new challenges of the plant of the future, flexibility and reconfiguration in near-real time, the current trend would rather be to aim for self-sufficient objectives that are targeted but achievable very quickly. Hence the advent of expert bricks.
An evolving market for MES
The industry is constantly renewing itself, in its core business, its infrastructures or its principles. IT architectures are undergoing radical changes: IOT is entering information systems, automation is spreading, wires are disappearing in favor of radio networks, field buses are being replaced by a new universal Fast Ethernet, and the cloud is no longer taboo, since some people dream of direct flows between customers and production machines. In summary, many layers of convoluted interfaces lose their usefulness while through-flows appear.
The methodological changes are just as remarkable. From a primary need for automation and efficient planning, the industry has moved from continuous improvement to agility. The employee refocuses on the system, modifying management and man-machine interfaces. Lean is more than ever at the center of the concerns of all decision-makers: a good solution must embody the most accurate management, because trying to practice Lean with traditional directive solutions is a challenge. The role of the operator is also changing: sometimes the only one able to indicate certain elements or guide a decision, his or her contribution of expertise must be easily integrated into the flow of information.
Coming from a very structured and rational normative concept, are MES always well adapted? This is the question asked by many manufacturers, but also by MES providers themselves, who increasingly tend to break down their “all-in-one” offer into “expert bricks”.
The contribution of new solutions
The solutions known as “MES bricks” are simply systems that specialize in one or more key areas of MES (performance monitoring, traceability, quality management, order monitoring …). They belong to the world of MES because they are part of the same layer of communication between sensors/automats and ERP but offer a less diversified range of businesses, which they nevertheless cover more easily and at lower cost.
The main difference with full MESs is the implementation flexibility they offer. These solutions are generally designed to be implementable on a large number of production situations and thus quickly standardize the analysis of equipment, old or modern, already connected or not. Their objective is to communicate easily with the lower (sensors, PLCs, etc.) and upper (MES/ERP) layers, using widely used communication technologies (Bluetooth, WIFI, etc.). Fast and competitive, brick integration enables manufacturers to iterate their digitization plan and avoid tedious deployments, by testing different emerging technologies on a few drivers at very low cost. Then, if the technology is chosen, to connect a limited number of means of production “à la carte”.
As far as data exploitation is concerned, brick suppliers have clearly understood the challenge of including field teams in the use of production monitoring tools and rely on intuitive programming and data analysis interfaces that can be used on a daily basis by both managers and operators. If the tool is to be used on a daily basis, the operator must remain at the center of operations, in the real world as well as in the virtual world.
The contribution of these bricks is therefore found through integration, costs and ease of operation, which can be summarized in one key criterion: agility. But not all bricks are the same, and some of them can reproduce the same errors as the most complete MES systems. In terms of integration, this can, for example, result in the impossibility of communicating with equipment of all ages, as some bricks can only retrieve information from machines via PLCs. Then, in terms of costs, many suppliers rely on highly modular solutions in return for very expensive customized developments.
TEEPTRAK, the example of the brick dedicated to performance monitoring, but not only …
Like other industrial startups, TEEPTRAK started from the observation that there was a real lack of simple production monitoring tools. The company addresses to all industrial sectors a turnkey MES brick solution based on connected objects to monitor the performance of any industrial equipment, old or recent.
No mandatory PLC connection, nor automatic link with other IT systems in the factory: the TEEPTRAK solution integrates in less than 1 hour on any production area in a completely external way and only needs an internet access to communicate with its server and the other IT systems in the factory (MES/ERP).
The objective of the solution is inspired by the Lean philosophy: to identify and restore the root causes of non-performance in a very simple and competitive way. It uses the latest communication technologies (Bluetooth Low Energy, WIFI) to automate the feedback of machine data (cadence, on/off status, parts counting) and combine to loss of performance data provided by the operator on a tablet.
All the information can then be visualized on a data consolidation platform, which enables plants to quickly understand the main causes of loss of performance of their industrial assets.
The solution is an example of an ultra-competitive and particularly scalable brick, which only positions itself on a specific MES business, performance monitoring, and manages to walk on the flowerbeds of giants whose names we will not mention here but who will have no trouble recognizing themselves.
But we have also developed other bricks that all live in an ecosystem: ProcessTrak for tracking physical values, PaceTrak for manual tasks, and QualTrak for quality monitoring.
Our solutions are deployed on a large scale in more than 150 plants since 2016, whether in the automotive, food, rail, electronics or aeronautics industries.