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A brief history of Manufacturing Execution Systems

November 19, 2013

A brief history of Manufacturing Execution Systems

The way in which applications like the MRP, ERP and MES have become so critical in management today, is quite fascinating. IT, has gained prominence only in the last three decades or so, and computer applications have become one of the major areas of investments and sources of competitive advantage. Today, we will explore how MES applications came into being and how they evolved from the rigid legacy systems to the need-based, modular and even SaaS deployed applications they are in the current times.

To understand the evolution of the MES we need to briefly consider how software applications made their way into manufacturing in the first place. Initially, in the 1970’s manufacturing organizations started using software applications to automate their most organized and well documented functional area, which was accounts. As time went by, these accounting applications were improved to provide the basic features of inventory management. Many modern accounting software apps still provide these features. These accounting applications however, had extremely limited functionality and lacked the depth and detail required for effective management of the overall manufacturing endeavor.

In the later part of the 1970’s and early 1980’s came the applications which are referred to as Manufacturing Resource Planning or MRP/MRP2 systems. These systems were capable of providing three major features, which are, 1) Material Planning 2) Material Control and 3) Production Definition. These applications were widely adopted and still continue to exist in many companies. The reason for their popularity could be attributed to the fact that these applications improved material/resource management and impacted the bottom-line positively for their employers.

However, when it came to real-time management and control of the shop-floor operations through analytic tools and WIP management, the MRP applications were found wanting. In the same time zone organizations also started gravitating towards ERP or Enterprise Resource Planning applications, which aimed at integrating organizational functions for better customer support and planning. These applications also lacked the granularity and speed required to manage plant floor operations, but even then they have remained popular with organizations around the world as they have excelled in providing better forecasting, planning, costing, HR, purchase, inventory management and accounting functionalities.

A major issue which still prevents the ERP systems from becoming the preferred choice for shop-floor management is the fact that the transactional data in these applications is recorded and reported on a weekly, monthly or daily basis, whereas plant management requires the recording and reporting of every single transaction on the floor instantaneously, which mandates that the application record and report transactions as they occur in real-time. This incapability on the ERP/MRP systems paved the way for real-time data collection software applications, which went on to become what we know as the MES today.

Towards the latter half of the 1980’s niche systems for the job shop both process and discrete came to the fore. These applications were customized to replicate the current status of the production process and were capable of providing functionalities such as operations scheduling, data-collection, maintenance scheduling etc. Early 1990’s saw these basic data collection and scheduling software applications being transformed to the MES applications of the modern day.

The term MES was first used in 1992 by AMR Research, which is now a part of the Gartner group. In the very same year MESA or Manufacturing Enterprise Solutions Association came into existence and defined the MES as ‘a dynamic information system that drives effective execution of manufacturing operations: Using current and accurate data, MES guides, triggers and reports on plant activities as events occur. The MES set of functions manages production operations from point of order release into manufacturing to point of product delivery into finished goods. MES provides mission critical information about production activities to others across the organization and supply chain via bi-directional channels.

Since 1992 MES has come a long way in the sense of what it could do back then and what it can achieve now. MESA has played a great role in the systematic and well documented evolution of the MES by acting as a global forum for manufacturers and application vendors alike and it has also helped the proliferation and adoption of the ANSI/ISA95 standard, which serves as the basis of MES development.

A brief history of Manufacturing Execution SystemsComing back to the historic journey of the MES, from the early 1990’s the MES evolution can be viewed to have evolved in a three tier model. Early MES models were on-site applications, which were coded such that they would represent the current manufacturing process of the organizations as-is. These were what we refer to legacy systems today. These systems were typically rigid and needed high initial investment both in terms of coding and for on-site hard-ware. Their rigid nature made it difficult for process owners to implement changes and any change made required a lot of effort in terms of coding. Another major draw-back was the need to hire and retain the personnel well-versed with the system.

These applications still continue to exist in some organizations, mainly because of the exorbitant investment made in them and the inability of the workforce to operate without them as they are dependent on the data which lies in the system for executing operational tasks. Towards the early and mid 2000’s the MES became more flexible and off-site web-based applications became popular. This meant they did not need as much hardware investment as they did initially. They also became more modular, which meant the organization could now choose which functionality they required the most and only pay for the features availed. Another advantage of these applications was that they could be used from anywhere and for any plant or production line around the world as long as internet access was available. This modular MES is still evolving and is becoming more and more popular because it is cheaper and can yet be customized as required due its flexible architecture.

The current stage of MES evolution is the one in which it is being offered as a service or in the SaaS mode, slowly making its way to mobile devices and allowing users to be connected to their fabs 24X7. The modern MES applications are much more competitive and give the ultimate power to the user. They allow end-users to configure and customize their reports and dashboards and provide different users information they value and need within the framework of the same composite application. These applications are capable of providing real-time granular data from each and every facet of the process, right from Resource/Material Status to Lot Genealogy, from Production Planning/Dispatching to SPC/Analytics.

To sum it up, the MES application has come a long way from simple data-collection applications originating in the 1980’s to the modern modular ones we see in the year 2013. The history of MES is filled with great achievements for those who have employed it and understood how to derive value from it. The future of these applications also looks bright as markets become more complex, lead times reduce and global competition increases, one can safely conclude that- as the manufacturing technology evolves and becomes more and more complex and precision oriented, the MES will remain an active contributor and driver of process excellence and economic profit for all modern manufacturers.


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