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The Future of MES

April 10, 2014

The Future of MES

The future is always a reflection of the past and present. This statement applies perfectly to the MES software evolution. The future of MES applications will largely reflect from learning with the past and improving from present conditions.

IT has become over the years a major contributor in the way businesses are run and a critical facet of the strategy mix. IT has now become the differentiator and determines the way a service or a product is rendered to the market and reaches the end user. It is only through collaboration provided by IT that global supply chains can function smoothly. In the near future manufacturing firms will rely heavily on applications like the MES to improve their productivity, performance and profitability. Over the past few months we have tried to explain how MES applications have been evolving over the period of the last 20-30 years and how they will continue to develop in the future as more agile, more collaborative, more mobile, more usable, more analytical and more cost effective applications. Today we will visit some of the key factors/trends of the present which will impact the way future MES applications will be developed and subsequently deployed across various shop floors and organizations.

Modern MES applications of today are but a mere reflection of what they used to be in the past. These applications now reside on the world-wide-web and are accessible to people from anywhere as long as they have internet connectivity. Major changes have happened in the way these applications store, analyze and report data. Becoming proactive systems, rather than reactive, with the capability of providing real-time information from the plant floor to relevant personnel anytime anywhere, even on mobile devices. In our article on the history of MES application, we saw how these applications came into existence. Starting from simple material planning and data entry applications, which were supposed to capture and report shop-floor data and provide loose automation and integration with plant equipment, to enable a sort-of rigid depiction of the current process. The MES of modern times however is much more than a simple process execution tool, where they can now actually integrate with both enterprise and automation level applications. At the same time be capable of accommodating and even orchestrating complex manufacturing flows.

Another big change in MES applications has come in the way in which they are designed for flexibility and agility, where customizable modularity has become the name of the game and old reactive ways of designing the applications have now almost become obsolete. In one of our recent articles we saw how MES design and development has moved towards Agile methods such as Scrum, moving away from rigid techniques like the waterfall method. The use of iterative and team-work based techniques in MES development has allowed both cost and time of development to reduce drastically. As we move towards the future, it can be predicted that the agile techniques will continue to be used and made more efficient to further reduce the time and cost of development adding further value to both the vendor and the customer.

Another area of MES development which remains a hot topic of discussion in the annals of the IT industry is whether or not the applications will go Mobile and whether or not companies will be able to meet the challenges presented by trends like BYOD. Traditionally MES applications were existent only on work-stations and UI of equipment. Then it slowly graduated to laptops as the application became available on the internet. The next obvious step for the application would be to transcend to mobile devices and provide full functionality, across different OS, device types and user groups. Another important development to consider here is whether or not MES apps of the future will make full use of the device functionality and hardware. How fast would this mobile revolution unfold in global shop-floors and how vendors and companies will overcome these challenges, remains to be seen in the future, but the mobile MES is coming rest assured!

Another fascinating development in the MES saga is the change in the way this product has been traditionally delivered and is delivered now.Traditionally an MES used to be a major CAPEX or capital expenditure, where a huge amount of time and money was spent to develop and deploy a highly customized application, which would represent the process as-is, considering that it would remain static or change in lowest possible degree. Modern MES vendors however, now deploy SaaS based applications which reside in the cloud and cost a fraction of money upfront. Here the MES becomes an operational expenditure or OPEX.

Also one major change worth mentioning here is that the MES application development and deployment no longer requires any in-house IT muscle or infrastructure whatsoever. Many companies in the past lived in fear of losing a large chunk of their operational and organizational knowledge, when seasoned IT professionals left or retired from the organization. With modern SaaS based and modular applications this fear is practically eliminated, the knowledge exists in the application and can be accessed based on need and organizational hierarchy. Also modular MES applications do not need in-house IT support and allow manufacturers to concentrate on what they do best- manufacture better products, faster and cheaper. This SaaS based and cloud based existence of the MES is still limited to the SME segment of manufacturers, future improvements in the way services are rendered and data is stored may see these applications moving to bigger and more operationally diverse and complex plants.

MES applications have also come a long way in terms of functionality, where they are now capable of providing real-time management reports through their SPC modules, support metrics like the OEE even applications once considered subsidiary such as LIMS have now found their way in the MES functionality. Traditional MES applications were incapable of changing their functionality or flow based on changes in process, which made them unsuitable for complex and discreet processes. This trend is now changing and MES applications are now capable of accommodating the most complex of flows in their design and are able to provide great deal of flexibility in the way they are configured and subsequently used. This trend of modular design and use-case based customization is all set to proliferate in the future, where MES applications will have an agile skeletal architecture, with incorporated simplicity of use. Even a user with practically zero knowledge of coding will be able to configure the application to best suit his/her work, without changing the way the application meets overall requirements/KPI of the process.

Even where compliance or CAPA is concerned, modern MES applications have been able to adapt and provide intelligent solutions for both, for compliance data from the process can now be stored and retrieved in the exact reporting format as desired by authorities, such as the FDA, for CAPA. Modern applications can provide intuitive corrective and preventive actions based of the current situation of an activity or status of a lot. This in-built intuitiveness is also set to grow further in future MES applications as computing and data analytics evolves further, applications to come will allow their users to manage processes only by exceptions and thereby enable them to concentrate their efforts in developing and improving the core competence. Even where configurability and GUI is concerned modern applications are providing their users a unique experience. Without any coding whatsoever, the users can create their own dashboards and tweak the application’s functionality to suit their requirements. Now users can decide which metrics or combination of information bits matter to them and are relevant to their KPI and use the same modular application to deliver these metrics. The user interfaces are both attractive and highly configurable, with simple drag and drop functionalities. As we go on we will visit this aspect of the modern applications in greater depths as well in the weeks to come.

The future looks bright for the Web (and/or) SaaS based, mobile, configurable yet modular and collaborative-MES, the elimination of in-house IT infrastructure and internal IT muscle looks almost inevitable. However, in some cases both might continue to exist, in fact may be mandated due the nature of the process of other complexities. But for the most part, it can be safely concluded, that once rigid and work-station based MES applications, will soon reside on mobile devices of all possible shapes and sizes and will not only provide full functionality on the devise, but also will be able to use the devise in its functionality.

Where process improvement is concerned MES applications will become more analysis driven with SPC and analytics modules advanced enough to detect every single infraction no matter how minute/granular and report it as it happens. While predicting future issues that my cause disruptions in regular activity of the plant, at the same time automating regular/routine activities and allowing management by exception.How and when these changes will occur remains to be seen. But changing/adapting the MES with the fast changing technology in production and highly demanding knowledge-worker user base will be a substantial challenge for current and future vendors of MES software and mobile apps.

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