MES: Eating the elephant

Corporate manufacturing leaders know they have some amount of error, waste, and inefficiency in their operations. Manufacturing execution systems (MES) can eradicate these productivity barriers.

By Matt Ruth, Avanceon July 11, 2018

This manufacturing truth is not surprising, sensationalism, or scandalous. It’s just a fact; leaders fight it every day in the plant trenches, and no limit exists on their opportunity to improve operations. But whether the issue involves waste from rejects, 10,000 mislabeled products, a mysteriously rejected 5,000 lb batch, or a perpetual cleaning process that never ends, the challenge is often where to start improving and why to start there.

When manufacturing leaders innocently share their business problems with the outside world and seek solutions to a significant list of issues, they often get more than they bargained for. They’re typically inundated with a barrage of software solutions that include more products, platforms, and three letter acronyms than they can stomach. They are saddled with supersized solutions that provide a huge amount of implied benefits and often come with a super-sized investment to match.

More often than not, the proposed solutions don’t show a clear return on investment (ROI) between the solution presented and the value to the business. In such scenarios, it is very difficult to distinguish actual ROI from flashy bells and whistles between one application and the next. The end result is an elephant-sized solution that can’t be eaten in one bite.

As a result, projects and programs get tabled until the next budget year when someone new dusts them off and looks in the market to see if the elephant got any smaller (or less chewy). Unfortunately, this process does not make operations more efficient. It doesn’t get the leadership any closer to knowing where to spend the effort and time to improve. All it does is kick the can down the road a little farther.

To combat this analysis paralysis, consider implementing the tried-and-true concept of eating the elephant in multiple bites. It also helps to closely examine the beast and pick the easiest and most tender spot to start. 

Easy bite No. 1: Visibility

Companies and users can identify most manufacturing problems by shining a light on them. Most plants know in general how their operations are running, but they won’t know definitively until reports come out in a few days, weeks, or at the end of the month.

So, here’s our first easy elephant bite: Mine your control systems for key performance indicators (KPIs) and display them on a web page or existing supervisory control and data acquisition/human-machine interface (SCADA/HMI). Far too often, even when key data is available, no one takes the time to display the raw information to people who can interpret it within a limited context.

These limited context interpreters exist in every plant; they are the supervisor or shift lead who can dissect an issue from looking in a few places. Imagine what could happen if such a person had access to the information in real time and could diagnose problems as things went bad rather than when they were already a problem. It’s often simple to define KPIs, mine them from the programmable logic controller (PLC) and display them in a manner that works for the interpreters and interpreters in training. 

Easy bite No. 2: Look to the past to predict the future

George Santayana said, "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." Manufacturing is no exception to this rule. If we don’t look backwards and understand what occurred, we can’t expect to improve moving forward.

That brings us to the second easy bite: After KPIs are established, put them into a historian and create easy-to-access reports. This progression, coupled with real-time KPIs, creates a perspective allowing the user to see what happens to the KPIs when you run a certain product, SKU, or process permutation.

The data gives you significant power that, coupled with simple web reporting, can unlock a treasure trove of places to focus your people’s efforts toward improvement. Given the relatively low cost of historian software, it’s a wise investment—indeed, you may already have under-used historian software already.

By taking these easy bites of the elephant, you can establish a baseline that will allow you to focus on discovering your issues and determining where there is a need for a true manufacturing execution system (MES). When you can look backward, you’ll have a solid foundation to justify the MES applications you need. These MES applications (productivity, traceability, quality, workflow, etc.) provide the context and clarity required for you to eradicate the inefficiency that the base historian/KPI solutions illuminated.

MES starts more successfully when users take small steps toward understanding the plant’s key areas and indicators and look backward to justify the closer and more granular look that a full MES can provide.

Matt Ruth is a senior executive leader at Avanceon, a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Jack Smith, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering,


KEYWORDS: manufacturing execution system, MES

  • Most manufacturers have some amount of error, waste, and inefficiency in their operations.
  • Mine control systems for key performance indicators (KPIs) and display them.
  • After KPIs are established, put them into a historian and create easy-to-access reports.

Consider this

Is your plant a candidate for the "eating the elephant" approach?