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What is a Manufacturing Execution System (MES)?

MES Explained: What is MES – Manufacturing Execution System?

“A manufacturing execution system (MES) is a control system for managing work in process on the factory floor.”

MES come in many sizes, complexities, and features from the most basic shop floor data collection solutions attached to an ERP system to full-blown automated solutions that are as large and complex as an SAP ERP system.

Most MES solutions allow a user to enter counts, scrap, start and stop jobs, or production runs. They can provide online documentation, traceability, job tracking, and status. They can track downtime and scrap by reason code at a high level. Many of them provide scheduling solutions too.

The operative word in the description of MES is CONTROL.

An MES solution is designed to control the process, which is fine in process manufacturing or some highly repetitive manufacturing, but for most companies, MES does not work as well.

Most manufacturers have fluid operations that require constantly changing schedules and needs. The more a system wants to control the process, the more likely users are to tell the system what it wants to hear rather than what actually happened. That’s not effective or helpful.

The more functions the MES provides the more detailed data they need which requires more input from operators. It can get very complicated, very quickly.

The Problem with MES Solutions

Our problem with MES is that it’s hard to define what it actually is. Sure, we know in a broad sense what it’s supposed to help manufacturers do, but that’s just it… an MES is too broad. It crosses a lot of boundaries between what you would think of as a traditional ERP system and other types of software. The whole purpose of a Manufacturing Execution System is that it’s tracking the execution of making stuff. That’s core to what it does.

The problem with it, beyond being way too broad, is that most of them were either built by ERP vendors or people in the process industries so they’re very large, very complex, very expensive, very rigid, and don’t react well to the fluid environment that exists in most discrete manufacturing companies. MES is not purpose-built for discrete manufacturers.

For example, think about the company, Proctor and Gamble. In their factories, they will have GE Prophecy which is an MES system. It can monitor everything that goes on in the process of making cleaning supplies like bleach. At a plant that makes bleach, all they make is…. you guessed it, bleach. They care about the process data. Is the reaction going well? Are all of the raw materials flowing correctly? Even the outflows like lot tracking when bottles are filled and making sure they can track back all of the ingredients should there be a problem. This is a very complicated process, but it’s relatively easy to track with an MES because it doesn’t change and the requirements are basically the same all of the time. That’s the benefit of an MES.

But, here’s where it starts to get too complex. If you try to apply that same MES in a discrete manufacturing plant that makes phone cases for all different types of phones, it becomes very hard because of the variability of the product. They could be making hundreds or even thousands of different types of phone cases based on brand, size, color, etc. This variability makes it extremely complicated to set up scheduling and performance metrics in advance while tracking everything that happens during the execution of making those products. How could anyone keep up?

Some MES systems include big quality modules, work instructions, machine connectivity to acquire data, user interfaces, SCADA systems, dashboarding systems, raw materials and inventory, labor tracking, costing, the list goes on and on. An MES can be as complicated as an ERP system and have a lot of the same functionality with the exception of order taking and accounting. So, all of this functionality is great, but if it’s not providing any other value than an ERP already provides and is not really allowing manufacturers to be flexible and understand what’s happening on the floor, in real-time, what’s the point? If a traditional MES system can’t give you real-time insight, what value is it providing?

No, ERP isn’t Going to Help Either…

Ok, so you may be thinking, “Sure, I may not need an MES solution if I have an ERP. Can I just get everything I need from the ERP, then?” Well, not too fast.

Many manufacturers think their ERP systems will include the same functionality as an MES. They aren’t completely wrong because you can see jobs and orders on the floor, enter how much you completed, and track how much scrap and downtime there was, but it’s all usually after the fact. All of the evaluation the ERP system is going to do is not timely.

A Manufacturing Execution System is a lot like ERP – it’s a loosely defined term.

An ERP system is not good for tracking production in real-time in the factory. It’s an Enterprise Resource Planning system, meant for planning the entire enterprise. Its purpose lies in order taking, planning out what you need to do, and then accounting for what happened. Most of the requirements for the system are driven by the accounting needs and not actually what happens on the factory floor.

NOTE: If you already have an ERP system and are frustrated by the lack of flexibility, you shouldn’t buy a new ERP system. You need manufacturing productivity software.

For example, you’ll set standards in the ERP system that says it takes 1 minute to make an iPhone case, but in reality, it may take 45 seconds and sometimes it takes 1:15. Really, the cycle time could fluctuate anywhere between those benchmarks. So, even if the cycle time varies, the ERP only accounts for 1 minute. When you’re planning and tracking and it’s telling you whether you’re ahead or behind, it’s all based on that 1 minute cycle time. That’s what accounting wants, but that doesn’t help you run your plant. (And, it sure as heck doesn’t help you improve).

Or, think about the employees on the floor. If you normally have 4 people working a line, but 2 call out sick, there will likely be less output than normal. So, if you’re measuring that in an ERP system, it’s going to say the standard is 4 people and they can produce one phone case every minute. But, now all of a sudden you only have 2 people. The ERP is going to say you’re meeting less than half of your performance metrics. In reality, the 2 line operators may be producing to standard and performing well for the number of people working the line. It’s that kind of flexibility that doesn’t exist in an ERP system or MES.

So, you need a tool that can actually reflect reality outside of the front office. You don’t need a number that’s an approximation or average. You need the reality of what’s happening on the plant floor. What’s going on right now?

The reason why people look outside of their ERP systems is the same reason why they use Excel spreadsheets. You simply can’t track the kind of data that you need to run the factory floor in most existing software systems (or spreadsheets) because they aren’t flexible.

Manufacturers need a more flexible solution beyond the capabilities of an ERP or MES.

Understand Production Execution with a Flexible Solution

But, if an ERP and a traditional Manufacturing Execution System aren’t the answers, what is?

What you need is a system that can collect the data and tell you what happened but then also provide the flexibility needed to make changes to on the fly.

So, if you’re running behind making black iPhone 12 cases, but you’re supposed to make red Android cases on that same line, you simply alter the schedule and move production on the red Android cases to another line. This gives you the ability to continue making black iPhone 12 cases and meet the target goals. This kind of scenario happens too often in discrete manufacturing environments. It’s not unusual.

This is why we’re dumbfounded when manufacturers use a Manufacturing Execution System to monitor production. It’s just too hard, and it really doesn’t have to be. There’s a better way, people!

It’s also okay if you can’t track everything, but these flexible systems still allow manufacturers, for lack of a better term, to roll with the punches. Plan for production changes and without going completely around the system or having to change the entire plant’s schedule, reconfigure it to make it work on the line.

Flexible solutions exist! There’s so much more beyond the world of traditional ERP and MES solutions.

The MES Software Alternative

What makes manufacturers realize Mingo is the gold standard is that while we have a lot of MES-type functionality, Mingo is flexible and dynamic, providing real-time insight into what’s happening on the floor.

It can directly connect to the machines and it’s a complete solution to do both. Then, you can get data automatically where you’re able, and where you can’t, you just collect it manually. This is another place where most MES systems fall short – they simply can’t do the manual data collection side of things. Or, you’re on your own to figure out how to do it yourself. Big yikes.

Beyond the Manufacturing Execution System

So, what we’re trying to say is that there are better solutions out there for manufacturers. Sure, 20 years ago, the ERP and MES solutions were the only options, but as we and so many others have seen the need for flexibility in the plant, solutions have been created to solve this problem.

There simply has to be a better way to run the plant. You need visibility and you need to understand what’s happening, in real-time, not tomorrow or a week from now. Look beyond the MES solution. There’s a whole new world of visibility waiting for you.

If you’re interested in learning more about Mingo, schedule a call with our team of experts.

Picture of Bryan Sapot
Bryan Sapot
Bryan Sapot is a lifelong entrepreneur, speaker, CEO, and founder of Mingo. With more than 24 years of experience in manufacturing technology, Bryan is known for his deep manufacturing industry insights. Throughout his career, he’s built products and started companies that leveraged technology to solve problems to make the lives of manufacturers easier. Follow Bryan on LinkedIn here.