MES integrators mix controls, enterprise expertise to guide production management

The steady acquisition and building of manufacturing execution system (MES)-level software packages by industrial automation vendors wrought change in their service partner ecosystems. Where once the focus of partners was on helping install human machine interface (HMI) software that had an equipment-level focus, now the automation vendors are cultivating a new class of partners adept at helpin...

By Roberto Michel, Senior Contributing Editor October 1, 2007

The steady acquisition and building of manufacturing execution system (MES)-level software packages by industrial automation vendors wrought change in their service partner ecosystems. Where once the focus of partners was on helping install human machine interface (HMI) software that had an equipment-level focus, now the automation vendors are cultivating a new class of partners adept at helping companies deploy MES and other higher-level production management solutions.

The skill sets of the automation vendors’ systems integration (SI) partners are changing as well. Yes, manufacturers still need integrators with expertise in automation technologies such as PLCs, but when it comes to production management, they also need SIs with a broader understanding of enterprise, product development, and supply chain processes.

“It’s hard to take a person who is good at programming PLCs and put them in a key role in a production management deployment without a lot of training, help, or prior experience,” says Ralph Rio, a research director for Dedham, Mass.-based ARC Advisory Group . “Those control-level specialists can help with the part of a deployment that has to do with communicating with the control layer, but you can’t suddenly hand them lead roles in large projects.”

MES—or as ARC calls it, collaborative production management (CPM) software—is one of the fastest-growing application categories among manufacturers. CPM solutions give manufacturers the means to plan, operate, and control their manufacturing operations using functionality such as workflow planning and management, factory and manufacturing process modeling, recipe management, resource management, and production optimization.

Rio believes strong end-user interest in continuous-improvement methodologies, including lean and Six Sigma, is one driver in the CPM market. SIs need to understand these methodologies, and how CPM can support them.

“When you do an MES implementation, the services people must really understand each plant’s business practices,” asserts Rio.

Players emerging to address this need include some larger SIs with manufacturing practices, SIs that grew out of a controls or automation background but have grown strong practices around MES, as well as the services arms of automation vendors or ERP vendors that offer CPM functionality.

A new tier

The biggest change in the services market that revolves around the big automation vendors is that the market is no longer limited to local control systems integrators. While this tier still exists and even thrives as a result of the fact that many end-user companies have downsized their in-house controls expertise, some partner firms have grown and expanded into MES, and some larger SIs are now partnering with the automation vendors.

Rapid growth for Collaborative Production Management solutions is driving the need for services resources capable of larger multisite deployments.

Jay Jeffreys, marketing manager for third-party programs with Wonderware , the production management software arm of automation vendor Invensys , says Wonderware has about 3,000 partners worldwide at various levels. However, only about 80 SIs are certified with Invensys’ ArchestrA software architecture, and can leverage ArchestrA as the framework for developing production management solutions.

“At the MES level, the number of partners we have gets a lot smaller in a hurry,” says Jeffreys.

These ArchestrA-certified partners include midsize providers such as Aseco Integrated Systems that have considerable MES expertise and a fair amount of scale for larger projects, as well as some larger organizations such as Atos Origin , which Wonderware works with closely in the European market.

“They had to change,” says Jeffreys of the partners. “When we launched ArchestrA a few years back, they had to embrace the new technology, and expand their vocabulary into information flows that would reach up further to ERP systems.”

Martin W. Michael, a VP with Advanced Automation , an Exton, Pa.-based integration services provider that implements MES software primarily from Wonderware and Siemens , agrees that such an evolution has taken place, as end users have gravitated toward production management solutions based on IT technologies including Ethernet and Microsoft .NET.

“The IT group in an organization used to be separate from the control engineering groups, but now the merging between those groups is happening more quickly,” says Michael. “Plant-floor systems are being managed under more of a standard IT architecture.”

For Advanced Automation, the evolution toward MES services means it must maintain expertise in the controls layer, while becoming expert in the MES software, and integration with the ERP layer.

“When you look at the services needed around global MES projects and integration to the enterprise layer, I think manufacturers are starting to distinguish the difference between the smaller integrators and organizations such as ourselves,” says Michael.

Maintaining focus

Charles A. Horth, president of System Technologies for Industry (STI), a Canadian systems integration firm, says rather than implementing MES-level packages from multiple vendors, STI concentrates on the Proficy suite from GE Fanuc Automation .

“We are focused on one space—MES—though we do understand the controls and ERP worlds enough to integrate to those two areas,” says Horth. “We also focus on certain verticals, and on software from GE Fanuc.”

STI isn’t a large organization, but big enough to send MES consultants on international assignments. For example, it helped Concert —a Falkenhagen, Germany-based manufacturer of cellulose fiber-based products used in items such as diapers and wipes—with a Proficy implementation at two plants.

Sergej Timakov, MES coordinator for Concert, says STI was able to send consultants to Falkenhagen to deploy the software there after the first site was implemented at Concert’s plant in Quebec.

But rather than looking for a large, global SI, says Timakov, Concert wanted a provider with deep understanding of its production execution challenges, as well as with the MES software. Timakov says STI’s MES experience in the pulp & paper industry, which is similar to Concert’s nonwovens challenges, was a key factor in choosing the STI.

“We were looking for a firm with experience in integration of MES, and experience in the same industry—or at least a similar industry,” Timakov says. “Knowledge of our challenges and needs that comes from the industry experience is very important.”

Two worlds

To excel at enterprise MES projects, says Michael, today’s integrators must have the deep automation knowledge that’s been the domain of smaller integrators, but some of the scale of large SIs.

“Companies are not going to hand a large enterprise-MES project over to a 20-person firm,” says Michael. “If you don’t have the firms that can bring to bear the resources to deal with these larger deployments, it’s going to hold back enterprise MES rollouts.”

According to Michael, there are just a handful of SIs with both automation and MES expertise that have more than $20 million in annual revenue. “There is simply a limited number of firms with the resources and expertise to do large-scale MES,” he says.

The nature of the services partners of the big automation vendors is shifting as the result of the trend toward higher-level production management solutions.

Wade Harsy, president of Valparaiso, Ind.-based Integrated Process Automation & Control Technologies (IPACT), an SI provider that deploys MES software from Wonderware, says today about 60 percent of IPACT’s work is at the MES level, with the rest having an automation focus.

“I’m looking ahead to that [MES level] work being more of our business as customers in the marketplace see the need to manage execution even better than they have been,” says Harsy.

In addition to MES and manufacturing intelligence implementations, says Harsy, IPACT also uses standard integration software from Wonderware, along with interface standards from ERP vendor SAP to integrate plant data with the enterprise level in accordance with the ISA 95 standard.

While the need to have systems for production execution—or to integrate execution data—with ERP isn’t really new, says Harsy, such projects are much less customized than a decade ago.

“What has changed over time is that MES-level projects—which were more about custom-coding a solution—are now about configuring packages and using middleware to glue packages together,” he says. “The MES and middleware products we are using are much more powerful, and much more evolved than they used to be.”

Rockwell Automation recognized the need to cultivate a group of SIs capable of larger-scale production management projects, so late last year, it launched its FactoryTalk Information Solution Provider program, says Rob Windle, manager of partner and channel programs for Rockwell. The focus of the program, he says, is to build a network of approved SIs that can help manufacturers build successful plantwide information applications and MES solutions using Rockwell’s FactoryTalk suite of production and performance management software.

The first partner in the program—Pittsburgh-based Summa —is expert at using middleware to support plant-to-enterprise integration projects, says Windle. While Rockwell will seek to add several more partners to the Information Solution Provider ranks, Windle says there is still a need for more conventional services partners that understand controls.

“Depending on the needs of a customer, [we will need] different types of partners,” says Windle. “One key partner that is emerging is one with a manufacturing information system focus, which is what we are targeting with the new program.”

Sandhya Malur, director of corporate alliances with GE Fanuc Automation, says GE Fanuc has about 1,200 partners of various kinds, with about 50 Premier Solution Providers (PSP) capable of MES deployments. Only a subset of those, she adds, have a track record for larger multisite MES projects.

Among GE Fanuc’s PSPs are midsize firms such as Entegreat , with MES experience. The company also recently announced a partnership with Wipro Technologies , a larger, India-based SI firm, to offer production management solutions to the automotive sector.

Wipro can be thought of as a global enterprise solution provider, says Malur. And while GE Fanuc is cultivating relationships with such larger partners, she adds, the midsize integrators with strong MES practices remain vital resources for customers.

“The mid-level integrators have deep industry experience,” she says. “They’ve grown up in the manufacturing industry, and can have a certain amount of scale as well.”

Advanced Automation’s Michael contends that large SIs might have vast resources when it comes to IT skills such as Java programming, but that any SI that takes on MES ultimately needs to understand process control.

“A successful MES deployment relies on the interface to the process layer,” he says. “So if you don’t have people who understand that technology—how to program it, how the data moves, and how the procedures are engineered—then the ability to successfully implement MES is hindered.”

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