MES and seeing your way to success

Latest generation Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) offer the visibility required to increase production efficiencies. Alan Johnson reports.

Most Australian manufacturers understand that to remain competitive they need to continually raise the efficiency levels of their production processes, however in many cases a lack of visibility is preventing major improvements.

Stewart Johnston, Enterprise Solutions Manager with Schneider Electric, says that while people want to get more information from their plant floor, many of them are still using Excel spreadsheets to run their operations.

“This is a very common problem, with a lot of the production information not binary, not validated, and containing many mistakes. Plus the information is not able to be shared across the enterprise,” Johnston told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“Many companies have gone through the process of installing an ERP system, so they have an enterprise wide view of their financials, but not from an operational perspective.

“That’s the problem in terms of getting the most out of the experts across their business, and getting the information they need in real time to control the business better and faster.

“If companies don’t have good control of that, it is not possible to get the most efficiency out of their production facilities,” he warned.

However Johnston says manufacturers who have implemented a MES system are seeing 10 to 25% productivity improvements.

“Unfortunately, many manufacturers still have an OEE (Overall Equipment Effectiveness) of only 50 to 60%, where best practice should be up around the 85% mark.”

Johnston admits OEE has traditionally been a lag indicator where companies collect the data and do the analysis and generate the results the following day.

“But by providing this information to the operators via a MES in real time they can see what their targets are, what they are trying to achieve, what is the maximum sustainable rate, and how to operate accordingly.

“With MES, if there is a problem on the production line, there is no delay in understanding what the problem is, so the operators can quickly manage that production line a lot faster and reduce the losses associated with the problem in a timely fashion,” Johnston said.


Johnston says MES offers manufacturers several important advantages including velocity, visibility and product variety.

“By velocity I mean speed to market. Companies need visibility of their production information to have control.

“Today manufacturers are producing a lot more SKUs, often it’s the same product, but with different packaging. So companies need the visibility to generate the variety and velocity to be able to be competitive in the market.”

Johnston says the key to production efficiency is to push that visibility down to the operational guys, the guys who are actually running the plant, so they can see what is actually going on.

“In many instances, the operations of a company are like a black box. They know the amount of raw materials going in, because the ERP system will tell you that, and the number of products coming out, but not much else.

“We are working with a number of manufacturers to install an integrated solution so that they have visibility across all their operations.”

Johnston explained that Schneider has moved to third generation software for the company’s two MES products, Wonderware and Ampla, which are enterprise wide, object based and model driven.

“Both the MES products can provide plant information to users at all levels within an organisation. By that I mean, enterprise wide like an ERP system, where companies have a solution that can sit across all their operations, and being object based they have the ability to template those objects, which can be a piece of equipment, or a number of pieces of equipment within a process stream, such as a packaging line.

“It’s all defined within an object, with those objects able to be reused for similar operations or plants, enabling companies to roll the system out much faster, and is model driven,” he said.

“We build a lot of our functionality around the workflow, the process, and we are seeing more and more companies moving down this path.”

Johnston says he is also seeing the workforce getting younger, saying that by 2020, it is estimated that 40% of the workforce will be Gen Y, with mobility very important.

“The transferring of expertise and knowledge across the enterprise will become even more important in terms of mobility and virtual environments.

“We are working closely with Microsoft and already have a number of apps out there, which will pop up on an iphone or ipad.”

Johnston says people working in operations are far more mobile these days, with many people working from home.

“With the latest MES systems, they can now see what the production performance is and be notified of any problems. We are also working on a cloud-based solution with software as a service,” Johnston said.


Johnston admits MES implementation can be time consuming and expensive, similar to an ERP system, but says there are many different ways it can be installed.

“We are finding that a lot of companies are quite happy to grow the system. By that I mean implement the modules they want to address their immediate pain points.”

Johnston says firstly companies need to be able to consolidate the information together in an object-based platform.

“That allows companies to connect to any data source, including PLCs, plant and equipment and engineering, control and management systems. It doesn’t matter what it is or where it might be.

“Our platform system becomes the bedrock to build the MES on top of, because that will bring all the information, in context, to the user. And we can use that to build our MES solution set.

“If OEE is a pain point for example, we can install our downtime delay accounting system, but if it’s inventory we can install our inventory management solution.”

Johnston says that by providing the operators with the production information in real time, and also capturing any underlying causes of any delays, they can do root cause analysis and continuous improvement, and fix any problems in a timely fashion.

“The system can be used to focus on all the different types of products being produced that day, which could be a dozen or more.

“It is very difficult to manage the production process if the operation guys don’t have the visibility to see what has been planned or scheduled and then executing it.

“And when things go wrong, or something breaks down, or a shortfall of raw material, how are they expected to quickly adjust so they don’t lose production time, keep their OEE up, and maximise output,” Johnston said.

Energy savings

Despite the rising cost of energy, Johnston says there are many manufacturers who are not aware that software is available which can help reduce these costs.

“The immediate focus is on trying to get more out of their operations, with the cost of energy often a secondary requirement.

“However, we are finding the more mature operations, those with a stable operation and operating at their maximum sustainable rate, are now starting to look at how they can get more out of their assets by reducing energy usage, which includes water, electricity and gas.

“This information is readily available from the shop floor. We can see in real time how much energy the production facilities are consuming, and can notify the operators if they are suddenly using more than normal.

“We can also do some smart things in managing and reducing that energy consumption with our supervisory systems.”

However, Johnston admits the low hanging fruit for most companies is improving their operational efficiency.

“But if they can get the benefits of lower energy costs at the same time, that’s a benefit as well.

“We look at it two ways. We look at the productivity being up and the energy consumption being down. Doing more with less,” Johnston concluded.

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