The discussions about deploying a Manufacturing Execution System (MES) are on the rise as the industry gradually transitions into the digital era. Like any change that impacts the production of goods or products, implementing an MES is a critical project because it can slow down or even halt a production chain completely. It is therefore essential to ask the right questions when implementing an MES.
1. What is the digital maturity of my company?
If you manage your bill of materials in a spreadsheet, your manufacturing instructions are written in a word processing software, your production orders are a collection of printed documents, and your logistics flows rely on paper forms, implementing an MES in such a context can be particularly challenging. An MES primarily relies on data, not paper! Before embarking on the Manufacturing Execution System journey, it is crucial to assess the company’s digital maturity, not only in the “production” part but also across the entire value chain from product design to production. Are technical bill of materials and routing prepared using digital tools that can link data together? Can logistics exchange digital information with other systems?
In the “production” part, you should also consider a set of questions, particularly regarding the ability to connect production line machines: do they have controllers for data exchange? What protocols are used? Is network connectivity planned? The diversity of protocols and machine controllers can be a real obstacle to collecting ‘machine’ data in the MES.
The ability of personnel to embrace digital tools should also be taken into account. It’s not necessarily a roadblock, but it will significantly influence the level of support required for each type of workforce (logistics personnel, workshop managers, technical preparers, etc.).
2. What is the primary goal of my MES deployment?
The objective of deploying a Manufacturing Execution System (MES) is sometimes poorly defined and communicated. There is often confusion between ‘digitization of production’ and ‘increasing productivity.’ However, the deployment of an MES does not necessarily aim to increase productivity in the first place.
First and foremost, it is evident that the deployment of MES must align with the company’s strategy. MES is not, by definition, an isolated tool solely for ‘production.’ It requires information from design and method offices, it influences information exchange with logistics and quality, etc. Therefore, its implementation must be coherent and contribute to the overall goal of the company. This overall goal may differ from simply increasing productivity. For example, the focus of the MES may be on production scheduling if the priority is improving On Time Delivery (OTD). There may be an urgent need to enhance product quality, which will lead to specific MES functionalities related to traceability, product tracking, integrated management of non-conformities, and the ability to automatically provide the exact composition genealogy of the product.
Another ambition may be to prepare for the factory of the future, where the MES is seen as an essential prerequisite for connecting machines and tools (smart tools), automating quality controls, facilitating the work of operators (Augmented Reality), and enabling greater production line flexibility.
It is clear that defining the objective of MES deployment will impact how the project is ‘sold’ to different teams and to senior management. A MES project can and should be initiated without necessarily requiring an immediate Return on Investment (ROI) calculation. If the objective is to prepare for the factory of the future, investing in MES is essential, not for short or medium-term ROI but to avoid missing the opportunity to use future technologies that rely on MES, which will bring benefits.
3. Is my manufacturing engineering compatible with an MES?
The deployment of an MES is part of the digital continuity of information and, as such, involves near-real-time digital dissemination of information between the method office, which prepares manufacturing routings, and production, which executes them. This is generally a significant change for two teams accustomed to working in their own silos and exchanging information only at specific milestones. Imagining implementing an MES without affecting technical preparation is a pipe dream or a guarantee of failure. An MES project must necessarily include work on redefining technical preparation. Moreover, one should be prepared to consider this redefinition not only in terms of content but also regarding processes and even organization.
Specifically, traditional work instructions are not ‘digital’: they are simply text-based, even if written in a software like Word. However, to be exploitable by an MES, these work instructions must be broken down into different types of objects: descriptions, data collection, safety verification requests, plans, standards, quality control, bill of materials, etc. Each of these objects must be described as ‘data’ rather than text so that the MES can use them. This sometimes implies significant modifications to existing work instructions and even changes to the roles of individuals (once digitized, why wouldn’t quality controls be included directly in the work instructions by the quality department?). The integration of technical preparation overhaul is therefore indispensable in an MES project.
4. Am I ready to profoundly change my processes and organization?
Considering the deployment of an MES as merely digitizing the execution of work orders is far too limited. It would be like imagining that the introduction of ERP systems did not change the work and responsibilities of financial controllers and logisticians. The introduction of the Manufacturing Execution System should prompt a reevaluation of everyone’s role and a redefinition of the most efficient processes considering this new tool. Due to the digitization of production information, exchanges between different teams will be much faster and almost real-time. Therefore, it is necessary to think about these information flows and the role of each team. Is it still necessary for a quality controller to initiate a test on a test bench when the MES can send the test parameters to the bench and retrieve the result, which can then be handled by an operator (with the quality controller focusing solely on analyzing the results received automatically on their PC)? Examples like these abound, especially in activities that currently require the involvement of several teams (production, quality, technical preparation, logistics) and where shared activities can be optimized and streamlined.
This change in the scope of activities affects not only production personnel but also all roles upstream and downstream. For instance, the required skills of technical preparers can also change significantly, especially if the goal is to use the MES to create more visual and interactive work instructions, such as a sequence of 3D images with annotations, utilizing the digital model. In this case, expertise in using a 3D model becomes necessary, which technical preparers may not necessarily possess. Therefore, a decision must be made either to train them or to entrust the task of creating these visual work instructions to another team under the supervision of technical preparers who retain expertise in the manufacturing processes.
5. How can I best consider the human factor?
The Manufacturing Execution System is a tool that will be used almost every minute by operators, workshop managers, quality control personnel, etc. Therefore, it is crucial to involve them in the MES project. First, share the MES vision, what is expected from it, and how it fits into the company’s strategy with the teams. Generate buy-in by highlighting what it will bring to each individual and how it contributes to the company’s performance. The MES’s ambition and the MES solution itself should be co-constructed with them: how do they want to interact with the tool (PC, tablet, what type of interface), what information do they want available in the tool to facilitate their production work (daily production targets and real-time positioning, 3D illustrations of assembly activities, etc.). Their involvement in defining the solution at these stages is crucial to ensure that the tool is useful to them. Moreover, they are in the best position to define what they need to work effectively.
To build trust in the tool, it is also essential to prioritize iterative deployments of a few features rather than a massive all-encompassing deployment. This more gradual approach reassures the teams, gives them time to become familiar with the tool, and allows for gradual adaptation of work habits. An essential factor in this iterative approach is to continually consider on-the-ground feedback, adapting and adjusting the tool to demonstrate to each individual that they are active participants in this transformation.
To make the most of the Manufacturing Execution System, one must be ready from the outset to adjust processes across all roles that are impacted by or impact production. The MES project is a genuine company transformation project that should not be confined to the production domain.