There is a lot of debate and discussion pertaining to the way a Manufacturing Execution System (MES) should function from an IIoT and Industry 4.0 perspective. The words ‘open’ vs. ‘closed’ application are also encountered in such debates; I will focus on the basic difference between an open and a closed MES, and which one is suited for the times to come.

Some Background

Traditionally, MES applications were designed to mimic the production process in order to help execute the same; applications were tailor made and resided on a local server within the facility and coded either by the in-house IT team or a third party provider. While these original applications were good at execution (which was their primary purpose), they had some serious shortcomings: their architecture was rigid, in the sense that any changes to be made were quite difficult, leading to scalability and extensibility issues. On top of that, these vintage applications were engineered to work only with a given set of equipment and had a standard Graphical User Interface (GUI), so that any changes in process technology would render the current application useless or lead to very expensive upgrades.

These applications also possessed limited capabilities to integrate with higher level business systems such as ERP, SCM, CRM and WMS. These MES applications are typically referred to as ‘Legacy’ products; typically rigid systems built on older technology with a limited scope of integration and an extremely costly upgrade path due to the amount of effort needed to make them modernized. In some cases, the vendor may have lost the ability to support their older applications. 

Open vs Closed Systems

Legacy applications are perfect example of a ‘closed’ system, which is designed to perform a particular function but is limited in functionality and scope. Even some MES applications introduced with a slightly more modern architecture may be categorized as a closed system, which we’ll address later in this post. First, let’s understand what an open system represents and why selecting an MES with an open data platform is essential from an Industry 4.0 perspective.

The current industrial revolution (Industry 4.0) demands that there be end-to-end connectivity across the supply chain. This allows decisions to be proactively made, based on intelligent information gained through the integrated IT applications along the supply chain. These systems use real-time data such as IIoT to add context, to convert this raw data to actionable intelligence, in real-time and across the different levels and layers of the enterprise.

In an ideal Industry 4.0 environment, an event which happens at the shop floor automatically triggers a whole chain of IT-based activities. An event as simple as a defective seal which causes a minor oil leak in an assembly would lead to actions and insights of unprecedented scale in manufacturing if the right IT applications are integrated and the right visibility is given. 

Sticking with the example of the faulty seal, as soon as the issue is detected, the MES goes into action.  Since the MES is connected to the process equipment and maintains the entire history of seal-related failures it can launch operator notifications of these process issues. The MES notifications could include supplier details, history of occurrence and proposed corrective actions. This will help process owners take the next steps without decision lags.

Additionally, the MES could also raise alarms and send alerts to higher-level applications like the ERP to indicate a shortage of good product for shipping (delaying customer orders) or to the process equipment applications using sensor data to alert of breaches in GMP. The end result is a tighter supply chain to restrict losses, and more responsive operation, reducing delays and containing errors.   

Open Systems Make Industry 4.0 a Reality

Such open, unrestricted, enriched communications using both IIoT-enabled applications and application to application integration, with the MES at the very center, is what makes the Industry 4.0 a reality for manufacturing value chains.

Data is gathered in a real-time stream from the shop floor; basic analysis is done to develop patterns, trends and insights through machine learning; inputs coming from various applications like the ERP or the WMS are then added to create intelligence, which is then delivered to end users in desired format; all while process orchestration, quality management, compliance and continuous improvement are happening on the shop floor automatically through the MES.

This scenario is unattainable using legacy MES, whose purpose of simple data gathering and reporting falls short from the Industry 4.0 ideal — lacking the rich integration and inter-application communication that today’s modern architectures offer.   

An open, modern MES is a modular yet configurable application, which is the cornerstone for a manufacturing data platform. This data platform supports integration with lower level process control systems through established device integration protocols as well as integration with higher level applications such as ERP/SCM. This kind of open architecture and integration capability is a must for an MES to truly be IIoT-enabled and perform the expected functions which make it Industry 4.0-ready.

An ideal open application has the ability to communicate across layers of applications, in real-time, coupled with the capability to handle both streams and batches of data. Stream data can be processed at the source; batch data can be collected, formatted and processed at a later date when loads or needs are less critical.  Both can provide rich context to enable effective and quick decision making– a critical feature of the ideal open application.

Now, in contrast is a closed application. For software, it refers to a system that has the ability to communicate with other components of its ecosystem (for example to gather information from the process equipment) but it’s considered closed because of its structural difficulties in communicating with higher level applications and other internet-enabled devices used by the process and supply chain personnel. It may also have limited ability to be extended or enriched with newer technology – or the effort to do that is significantly high. If you use a closed MES similar to the one just described, your MES is far from the ideal application to support Industry 4.0 and is it probably time to consider changing it.

A closed application by virtue of its architecture would lack the very features which form the basis of a manufacturing data platform for open and unrestricted communication.

The logical conclusion to draw here is simple: if you want to be on the path of Industry 4.0, you need to switch to an open and modern MES.

We have created several white papers on MES migration to facilitate the process of changing from a closed to open system. It’s important to involve the right stakeholders in your organization, the right consultants that understand both your business and your objectives for migration and of course the right MES vendor.

Industry 4.0 is a reality—and to gain its benefits and ready your organization for transition, you need to ensure that your MES is open. A closed MES unnecessarily limits you from gaining the visibility, collaboration, supply chain optimization and competitive advantages of responsiveness and adaptability to change, as the integrations, data gathering and deep analytics may be lacking. 

On the other hand, an open MES provides benefits far from just the obvious integrations and business intelligence gained by the ability to access, in real-time, process and system data. An open MES is the backbone for your data and analytics infrastructure — the foundation for Industry 4.0.