“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom” – Aristotle  

This simple line has a profound meaning and relevance, whether applied to life in general or to a very specific scenario, like choosing the right MES application for your manufacturing style and associated processes. Management leaders considering possible MES applications for their organization must pay serious attention to how their own manufacturing style can and will influence the type of MES they need, with functional capabilities prioritized on their operation’s specific requirements.

Choosing the wrong application without a deep dive into the right operational fit might lead to a lot of time and money wasted, user frustration, and a higher potential for failure. So getting it right the first time becomes critically important; but with so many vendors and applications available, the MES selection process becomes difficult unless you first know yourself and then understand what to look for in the right partner.

Categorizing manufacturing operations based on process workflows and establishing a functionality/weight-based methodology for selecting the right MES is a logical first step. Understanding industry-specific use cases will enable and aid better decision making when it comes to deciding which MES works best for you.  

Manufacturing Styles and Use Cases

Manufacturing has three primary styles of processes:

The primary styles can be further broken down into seven distinct use cases as follows:

  • Continuous process — make to stock
  • Continuous process — make to order
  • Batch/repetitive flow — make to stock
  • Batch/repetitive flow — make to order
  • Batch/repetitive flow — engineer to order
  • Complex discrete — make to order
  • Complex discrete — engineer to order

a)       Continuous process – make to stock

As the name suggests, the manufacturing activity in this category is continuous in nature, producing goods which are stocked based on demand projections and pushed to the market as and when scheduled. A Continuous Process produces products like Oil & Gas, Petrochemical, Electrical Power and Paper; it is a single flow of material, manufactured continually, without changing process parameters for a specified length of time.

For such a process, what do you think is the most important deliverable for an MES application? As the process is continuous in nature, what becomes important for process owners is to be able to monitor the manufacturing activity itself in real-time and analyze the process as it progresses. This requirement of knowing what is happening at every moment and seeing whether the process is operating between the acceptable limits dictates that the MES employed must have the ability to integrate with the automation/process equipment, conduct real-time data collection, and report on this data for subsequent analysis and performance management. Predictive maintenance is also important for this segment, understanding not only when an asset fails, but when it could fail, based on behaviors and patterns.

Another key decision point for continuous process/make to stock is the ability of the MES to measure and reflect in-process quality parameters and provide actionable SPC information. These indicators reflect the process’s performance against critical KPIs. Also  important for the MES application is the ability to upgrade the application without disrupting the flow of the process and being able to provide industry-specific tools and templates which enable easy rollout and enhance the user experience.

Since in a continuous process the workflow is stable and may not need to change very often, the MES’s capability of configuring multiple workflows and providing features like scheduling may be of less importance. However, it is important to note that other features like its architectural maturity and a robust user interface remain equally important across industry segments and manufacturing use cases.

b)      Continuous process – make to order

This process is similar to the ‘make to stock’ scenario with a slight variation; goods in such a process, while produced in larger quantities over an extended period of time, are manufactured against specific customer orders. Examples are pulp & paper, sheet metal, and chemicals.

Factors which influence which MES is more suitable for this mode are similar to that of the continuous manufacturing/make to stock scenario, as the ability to monitor and control what is happening in the process (in real-time) still remains critically important. Other features which are also relevant are the MES’s ability to integrate with enterprise level applications like ERP and SCM, support regulatory compliance, perform quality testing (in-, at- or offline); and provide data collection, user visualization and process oversight management.   

The nuances of make to order vs make to stock for the continuous process industry are important: ensuring your MES has the capability of both modeling and managing a non-stop flow of material, while associating lots or containers with individual customer orders, is fundamental to its success.  Requesting relevant use cases of your vendors ensures this first level of compliance. 

c)       Batch/repetitive flow – make to stock

The manufacturing activity in this process happens in bulk, where a recipe is used to create ‘batches’ of product that may then be further processed (food and beverage, pharmaceuticals and some consumer packaged goods are created in batch processes). Make to stock batches are used to create stock against business projections. The stock can also be used for further processing if the company also does make to order.

The requirements placed on an MES in batch processing are very different from those in continuous processing. Since the production is in batches—each batch having a unique identification—data collection is simplified as there are discrete ‘units’ of product being produced (pounds, gallons, etc.). An MES’s ‘job’ is to provide guidance and oversight, collecting data on each batch, reporting material consumption, documenting relevant process data (temperatures, measurements, operator actions to support regulatory and Good Manufacturing Practices) and deep integration with the ERP (ingredients as well as inventory items; quality tests) as well as monitoring quality, integrating with process control equipment and performing track/trace/genealogy of the batches throughout the process, in order to meet and exceed industry-specific compliance/regulatory norms (for example, to quickly enable product quarantine or recalls).  

Other functions which carry over from Continuous are to ensure smooth upgrades, maintain a positive, interactive user experience and provide integration with control and business systems.  Additionally, many MES products in this segment offer industry specific-master templates which capture ‘best practices’ for standard processes, such as batch recipe management.

d)      Batch/repetitive flow – make to order

In this process, production activity focuses on meeting a customer order, i.e. the production is demand-driven. Food and beverage, consumer packaged goods, and specific assemblies of medical devices being manufactured or assembled by an OEM for various customers are good examples of this style. While most of the drivers which would help you select the ideal MES for this process are similar to that of the batch manufacturing for stock, there an important difference in weight or importance of the functionalities.

For a process of this nature, it is imperative that the MES application must integrate with enterprise applications such as ERP or SCM to enable an end-to-end functionality, sending status that could affect on-time order delivery, such as quality test outcomes, material consumption or shipping information, which becomes critical in a pull-based, demand-driven business.  

Given that all other parameters are of similar importance, there is equal need to integrate with the process equipment. While there is only a slight variation in relevant functional weight, choosing an application which is unable to integrate with your ERP might be a fatal error.

e)      Batch/repetitive flow – engineer to order

The essence of Engineer to Order is creating a unique product every time. This style is a variation of batch manufacturing where batches are made as per specific technical and performance requirements placed by the end customer.  Since the process demand specifically engineered content being added to the product, the MES application ideally must have the capability of providing integration with the actual product design—normally through PLM/PDM integration. The MES should enable recipe & BOM management, routing & process orchestration, work instructions & workflow management.

Functions like process execution and configurable workflow gain higher weight in this scenario, and should be taken into consideration when making your MES selection. Factors which are slightly less important for batch manufacturing/engineer to order would be equipment-level integration, specific templates and ease of system upgrade.

f)        Complex discrete – make to order

The Complex discrete style produces a unit or single product (a can, a valve, a car, a plane) and employs complex workflows as part of the manufacturing process, where each order being executed might have subtle-to-substantial variation in product specifications. The Make to Order style is customer order driven.

Such a process requires an MES which can handle the lot sizes of ‘1’ type of manufacturing, and the weightage of functionality features for such operations from an MES standpoint lie in stark contrast to those of a continuous process manufacturing, owing to the polar opposite nature of the operation itself.

Execution of production activity through the application gains critical importance for such processes, the ability to set master recipes or designs, then modify and execute them based on the variations required; process orchestration and control through intuitive and intelligent UI, routing and material management through process implementation, PLM/PDM integration and integration with enterprise level applications (ERP/SCM) become highly valuable.

The ideal MES application for such a process would be able to accommodate and accentuate the process’ inherent complexity and allow users to execute the requisite activities like data management, in-process quality control, architectural maturity and compliance-related traceability. Less important is the ability to integrate with process equipment.

g)       Complex discrete – engineer to order

This process, as the name suggests, further complicates the already complex workflow of discrete manufacturing by imposing the need to have specifically engineered content added to the requisite finished product.

The MES functionalities needed to properly orchestrate, monitor and control this kind of process is similar to its predecessor, but with certain noteworthy variations on the weighting factor of each feature. PLM/PDM integration coupled with the ability to properly connect with the ERP/SCM becomes mandatory. The ability to execute production through the system itself is a necessary feature; least important is the ability to integrate with process equipment.

Now that you’ve categorized, what’s next? 

Having categorized the various manufacturing processes and outlining the specific functionalities to prioritize while choosing the MES, it is also important to emphasize that certain functionalities, while not always weighed to be most important, remain relevant across industries and manufacturing processes. Enhanced user experience and an intuitive UI will command importance, irrespective of the industry segment.

The ability to monitor product quality and ensure process KPIs are recorded and reported is another vital function and selection criteria. Maturity of the systems architecture (does it support Industry 4.0, IoT; does it have open APIs and the ability to customize); does the MES support specific manufacturing styles (as we’ve detailed above) and can they provide use cases to underscore their claims; and is the MES elegant enough to support seamless rollouts and implementations, both locally and globally if those are your needs, are key decision points.

Concluding our effort to explain the various operations types and functionalities, or styles which drive the right MES choice, we circle back to the fact that for choosing the right MES, being self-aware is of critical importance. As we have seen above, even in similar process types the drivers which may help determine the right MES may vary, and this is a crucial takeaway of this article. The MES vendor’s domain expertise and the application’s maturity against your manufacturing style may very well define the MES you select.. We hope this post is able to better direct you in making the right choice for your organization’s MES needs.

Critical Manufacturing scores highest for 2020 Gartner Critical Capabilities for MES report in 3 use cases