Some perspectives on MES implementations: Part 1

A lack of understanding or definition of MES within a company can lead to the same mistakes being made on project after project.


I think everyone knows by now that I’m a manufacturing execution systems (MES) guy from way back. I’ve been doing MES since way before they even called it MES. In fact, when I started doing it we didn’t even have a name for it. MES is one of the names for a class of computer-based systems that are focused on the execution side of manufacturing. Another common name for these systems is manufacturing operations management (MOM).

I’ve seen more MES implementations than I can count, and I’ve seen so many of them that I’m seeing the same mistakes being repeated. It’s interesting in that the industries might change, the software might change, but the mistakes that are being made are the same.

An entire class of mistakes can boil down to the question of what MES really is. Projects head off to implement MES, but there’s no common definition of MES within the company—or sometimes even within the project team. This is just part of the fun with MES because there is no universally accepted definition. The best definition I have for MES is the one I mentioned earlier—MES is a class of computer-based systems that are focused on the execution of manufacturing.

But, that definition of MES means that MES can be just about anything you want it to be—and that’s correct. MES can be custom solutions, large software packages, small point solutions, extensions of the DCS or HMI/SCADA, extensions of the ERP, etc.

MES can be whatever you want it to be, which means that project teams can get in trouble very quickly with different people thinking that MES is different things. The remedy is simple: Know that this is a potential problem, define MES in a way that works best for your company, and then let everyone know and make sure everyone uses the same definition.

Another common problem is a focus on the software features. This is especially common when a project is implementing an off-the-shelf MES package—particularly one of the large MES packages. Everyone gets focused on the features of the software and what it does, even to the point where MES gets defined by the software package and its features.

This is obviously putting the cart before the horse. The focus should always be on the business. What does the business need? What are the business processes? How does the software support the processes? How does the software support the business and add value to the business? It should never be about the features of the software. No matter how cool the software features might be, the software is just a tool for the business to use and the focus should always be on meeting the needs of the business.

Along these same lines is another common problem and that’s where the business or the manufacturing process has to conform to the software not the other way around. This is especially insidious in that it is often justified by making claims about the software incorporating “industry best practices.” But this is a lot of hogwash. What it really means is that that software is inflexible and only works a certain way and the business must conform to the software because the software can’t be changed to match the business.

This is almost always bad. If the business process needs to be changed to make it better, then change the business process and make it better. But, if the only reason that the business process is changing is to match the software package, then you should probably think long and hard about that. It probably means you have the wrong software package, or that the software package isn’t flexible enough, among other possible reasons. It rarely makes sense to change a good, stable business process just to match a software package.

Overall, it should always be about the business and not the technology. Just getting that right will go a long way toward ensuring a successful project.

This post was written by John Clemons. John is the Director of Manufacturing IT at MAVERICK Technologies, a leading automation solutions provider offering industrial automation, strategic manufacturing, and enterprise integration services for the process industries. MAVERICK delivers expertise and consulting in a wide variety of areas including industrial automation controls, distributed control systems, manufacturing execution systems, operational strategy, business process optimization and more. 

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