Technological advances have always meant progress for humanity, right from the time the first stone tool was fashioned or the very first fire lit. Every small advance in technology has been a giant leap for humanity and it has brought change, in most cases irreversible change for the better.

Cut to the present times where automation, advanced robotics, IIoT, AI, AR, cloud computing and additive manufacturing among other prominent technological advances are shaping the very future of manufacturing. The modern gamut of technologies are ushering in Industry 4.0 and with it, early adopters stand to gain unprecedented benefits in productivity, quality, innovation and profits. This newest industrial revolution is about an abundance of data and how it is captured, manipulated and converted to improved business performance.

As with any technological change of the past, Industry 4.0 too mandates changes in order for it to truly unleash a revolution across a particular value chain. Manufacturers intending to participate in the new industrial revolution must also be willing to make the requisite changes, which basically implies readying their current operations and more importantly their IT infrastructure to accommodate and amalgamate the technologies associated with Industry 4.0 in their value chains.

Today, about 40% of manufacturers (especially those in a regulated industry, or complex/high tech manufacturing) have adopted a MES application to execute and control their manufacturing processes, while 60% are adopting IIoT. The MES market projections for growth are more than 13% from 2020-2024. So there’s definitely a move to consider, and adopt, more structured applications to improve manufacturing performance.

Today, we will focus on manufacturers who already possess a MES application and want to move towards Industry 4.0. The question which they need to address is whether or not they need to fully replace their existing MES in order to reach Industry 4.0 benefits.

Is your MES Industry 4.0-ready?

For a better understanding, let’s first address whether the MES in use is capable of upgrading and implementing the pre-requisites of Industry 4.0.

MES applications which were pre-IIoT were mostly custom built, and many times ‘closed’ systems (see our blog post on open vs closed MES) where business and product, logic and flow were intertwined and integration with enterprise applications was optional.

You need to look at the current MES deployed in your process and ask the following five questions; upon answering them, it will become clearer whether or not an overhaul can save your application or it needs to go!

  1. The first question is whether or not the MES in use can be easily modified to make changes in workflow, data traffic/handling, business logic and in the UI. If so, are these changes scalable? Industry 4.0 is all about agility, speed and adaptability, which means the MES in use must be able to accommodate quick changes and that too at scale. If the incumbent application is custom coded and making changes to the way the application functions requires too much time, effort and cost, it is a definite red flag. Another important consideration for manufacturers with pre-existing MES applications which were designed in-house is to understand whether personnel capable of making requisite changes are still a part of the organization and if yes, can they make all necessary changes without compromising the way the application must function? Modern MES applications allow users to configure far more than custom reports; they can even create their own UI and the way it behaves, presents and functions.
  2. The second question has to do with integration. Is your current MES capable of integrating with other IT applications, specifically higher level enterprise systems like ERP/SCM/CRM/WMS? If not, this is a major hurdle from an Industry 4.0 perspective. MES applications which are unable to integrate with other applications hinder the concept of hyper-connectivity, which is fundamental to Industry 4.0. The applications are expected not only to integrate and allow sharing of information, but ideally any input from the value chain should result in a decisive and time bound action on the shop-floor and vice versa. Unless the enterprise level applications connect and share data intelligently with the MES, it is impossible to gain true Industry 4.0 benefits. Along with the ability to integrate, another vital aspect is the ability to support mobile deployment, which if the current MES can’t provide, it will only hinder Industry 4.0 deployment. MES applications today are able to deploy on any device as long as it is connected to the internet, allowing the platform to be truly mobile. Physical proximity is no longer a pre-requisite to learn what is happening on the shop-floor and control it.
  3. The third and probably the most important question is whether the existing MES can accommodate increased data collection, manipulation and reporting, as mandated by IIoT? This implies the ability to increase the capture, recording, analysis and reporting of data, in considerably larger number of process parameters, including structured/un-structured data from systems, sensors and mobile devices, previously not captured by the application. In an Industry 4.0 ecosystem, any application which is deployed on the shop-floor must have the capability of successfully capturing and utilizing large amounts of data, in real-time, and while doing so maintain the speed and uptime of the processes. If the MES is use currently can’t accommodate this need to capture, analyze and report data from the manufacturing edge, while maintaining high speed of operation, chances are that the application is obsolete and can’t handle the requirements IIoT places on it. 
  4. The fourth question pertains to current system performance: what are the speed, capacity and capability of the existing system? This answer to this question will help you understand the health of the existing MES. Can the MES capture and report data in real time; what happens to its speed when data being collected increases; how is the capacity to handle data analytics; do multiple queries raised slow down the speed, if yes, by how much? In terms of capability, can the application accommodate changes to work flow, SOPs, product designs and labels? If changes must be made, how soon and with how much effort is required to implement these changes? For an Industry 4.0-ready application, scalability is extremely important, along with the ability to accommodate changes with speed.
  5. The fifth and final question is whether or not the current MES can leverage all modern technologies associated with Industry 4.0. This is a serious consideration to be made, since Industry 4.0 is not a singular technology which needs to be adopted, but rather a technology bundle which, when implemented in tandem, leads to desired business results improvements. It thus becomes extremely important to understand if the current MES can accommodate AI/ML, AR, VR and Additive manufacturing. Can your MES provide capabilities to scale using even more intricate technologies associated with modern MES applications like containerization of applications, cloud and edge computing? Each of the technologies mentioned above forms a vital aspect of Industry 4.0. The degree to which each aspect gains importance depends on your industry and type of manufacturing you support. However, an application unable to leverage a minimum set of these technological advances, is likely not fit for implementing an Industry 4.0 foundation.

Modern MES applications are evolving into platforms which act as the main catalyst for Industry 4.0. These platforms connect with a myriad of data sources both on the shop-floor and beyond, capturing data in real-time, processing it at the edge and then communicating it to requisite stakeholders. Depending on severity of conditions noted, these applications also create more than just notifications; based on the inherent ‘intelligence’ of the modules, they are capable of prompting actions, from managing a simple alarm to initiating a corrective action, launching a maintenance order, to more drastic measures including line shutdown or lot quarantine. These activities are based on multiple applications, hyper-connected and agile. The modern MES is capable of accommodating multiple products, work-flows and configurations and yet maintain overall performance that you would expect-excellent uptime, operations visibility and oversight.

Pre-IIoT applications (including MES) weren’t simply built to function like the platforms of today do. If you’ve answered the questions above and have a ‘no’ or two, it may be time for you to move towards a modern MES platform. A modern MES will help you realize your Industry 4.0 goals. Remember, technology changes everything!!