ManufacturingQ&A: The Role of Manufacturing Execution Systems in an IIoT World

As the Industrial Internet of Things continues to gain momentum in manufacturing, many wonder about the future of manufacturing execution systems and their relation to digitalization initiatives.

Clint Wenthur is the Senior Manager of Global Manufacturing Systems Engineering at Plexus. He was interviewed to share his perspective on how the role of contract manufacturing execution systems (MES) will fare in the face of digital transformation technologies like IIoT, cloud computing, and machine learning.

Q: What is the role of MESs in the digitalization that is occurring in manufacturing operations?

A: MES will continue to take on a significant role as the industry digitalizes, acting as a connective layer between ERP or other business systems and what happens on the plant floor. An MES, for instance, can execute processes that are unique to an industry or company on a single production line or throughout a product’s journey across the facility. It also provides the means to create a record of the activity, which operators can leverage to optimize the manufacturing process and improve quality.

Q: As manufacturing operations continue to be increasingly digitalized, a debate has arisen over the relationship between MESs and IIoT. What is your position?

A: An MES provides a single source of truth for how products were made by capturing data on product configuration requirements. What the IIoT offers is a deeper level of data that connects user, process and equipment data to the MES. With this new level of information, manufacturers can reduce setup times and configuration errors by having a better understanding of their production.

Q: Do you view IIoT and its ability to simplify integration as just another means for enhancing MESs, or do you see IIoT and MES as separate but complementary means for optimizing production? What are your reasons for taking your position?

A: IIoT and MES are separate but complementary. Maintaining an enterprise MES requires a significant investment in core IT resources for effective database design, system architecture, etc., while the creation of edge strategies in the IIoT space must be placed into the hands of engineers in the manufacturing plant.

The cross-over between manufacturing and IT must continue to evolve with new management strategies whereby IT can manage rules for security and scalability. Simultaneously, the creativity of how and where to connect must exist within the manufacturing plant engineering teams.

Q: Why do you think that the other position is incorrect?

A: IIoT is about bringing many forms of new technology to the table. Simplifying integration does not ensure its success or payback to the organization. Companies must make calculated decisions about how to invest in this stage, given the impact to the organizations involved.

Q: How must MESs themselves change in order to adapt to an IIoT world? Do they need new features, reconfiguring, or perhaps a complete or partial restructuring in the way that they work? Please explain.

A: The core of the MES must be designed in such a way that it can scale with an ever-changing manufacturing process. An MES with additional deep learning components, for instance, will be able to identify complex trends that identify the next best step versus just notifications.

Q: Must users somehow adjust the way that they are deploying and using their MESs in order to take advantage of IIoT and other means of digitalization? If so, how?

A: In large-scale contract manufacturing facilities, various strategies must be devised to ensure connected devices and systems create value at the edge of the plant. We believe that each manufacturing plant must distinguish how processes are controlled with the aid of IIoT solutions.

The key to controlling many distinct processes is how the complex business rules coded into an MES can now be enabled through digital strategies at the point of collection in the factory. Streaming data via gateway devices or through some type of edge solution means that the MES can focus on using critical product information to meet customer requirements, rather than the process of capturing this real-time data.

Q: How will the role of MESs evolve over the next few years in an increasingly IIoT world, and how can users, vendors, or both leverage MESs and IIoT to optimize their production?

A: In the future, MES systems will have the ability to configure themselves and present a user experience specific to the product being manufactured. This will change the user experience, increase productivity and quality – opening the door to new manufacturing opportunities.

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