Deploying Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES): 7 Ways to Fail

By John Matura, InSource Manufacturing Systems Engineer

Clients often ask us to assess their Manufacturing Execution System (MES) deployment and identify any gaps that are limiting their ROI. In other words, “Why aren’t we getting the results we expected?” Since MES is normally a significant investment, often in the millions of dollars, corporate oversight is warranted and justified.

Here is a short list of ways to fail or not maximize the benefits of a new MES. There are other ways to fail, but this list represents some of the more common stumbling blocks.

  1. No End User Acceptance – End user acceptance is normally proportional to their level of engagement. When the “What” (requirements) of the new system is being defined, who is involved? If there is little to no representation of operators, maintenance, quality and other support departments that will interact with the system, how can it be expected that they understand and adopt the new MES? They have a job to do and will continue using old tools and methods if they do not understand the changes. If the new MES does not help the associates in their daily work routines, expect only passive acceptance and minimal use. The managers and engineers might have a louder voice in their vision of the requirements, but remember it is the associates on the floor that will interact with it daily and ultimately determine if it is a success or failure.
  2. Not integrated into the work process –When InSource is part of the initial requirements definition phase, mapping out the existing work processes with process owners is a required step. Managers and supervisors sometimes have an idealized perception of the actual production process. Operators and support departments actually know the reality since they live it daily. Engaging front-line users at this point helps ensure their buy-in if their issues are recognized and addressed. This process also helps identify critical process control points and operating information required. This is important when defining scorecards and dashboards that effectively support the production process.
  3. Overly complicated / ambitious – “If new technology can improve plant performance, let’s have it do it all, right now.” This is a potentially frustrating and costly approach. Ideally start with a relatively small, well defined scope. Complexity and desire will drive up the costs. Pilot projects are a good for proving the concept while refining the requirements. Make sure that the pilot provides tangible benefits and is a true representation of the overall requirements.
  4. Lack of support by supervisors and plant leadership – Plant management must lead the adoption process. This means MES data and reports need to be integrated into plant meetings. The system KPIs need to be understood and appropriately acted on whenever a variance is identified. This information needs to become part of the plant language and culture. And, probably most importantly, the managers need to support the MES on the plant floor with positive interactions with operators and supervisors. Adoption cannot be successfully mandated. It must be visibly encouraged and demonstrated by active management behavior.
  5. Confusing scorecards – Visual management is an important part of associate engagement. Digital scorecards are far superior to the white boards and cork boards of the past. Information is now displayed real-time. That’s cool but what information is displayed and in what format it is displayed matters. High level key performance indicators are nice to know, but often have little linkage to the shop floor. They do not have a lot of time to decipher scorecards. Many are jammed with information that is met on the floor with “so what”. Focus on what information engages associates because they can directly impact that information.
  6. Excessive Downtime Reason Groups and Reasons – There is a temptation to make downtime categorizations as finite and granular as possible. Many clients start with a paper log of down events including reason and duration recorded by an operator. Some organizations might have pre-defined buckets or categories for these events. It is a major activity to rationalize existing down information into reason groups and reasons that balance the detail required by process and reliability engineers and the mechanical activity of documenting an event by operators and keeping the line running. Remember, an operator will not willingly scroll thru excessive lists to get to the exact reason. They have a job to do and will normally select something that is reasonably close and easy to get to. This adds some concern about the credibility of the information. If a reason is too granular, it is harder to look for patterns of failures since each event is categorized as a unique one-off event. The other issue is trying to capture all down events no matter how small. Initially micro-stops are a nuisance and diminish the value of the system since each one normally needs to be acknowledged and categorized. Setting an initial trigger threshold of 3 to 5 minutes, depending on the process, minimizes these events and lets the operator focus on properly addressing and documenting them. The threshold is normally reduced as line performance improves.
  7. Not acting on information – Finally, having information that is nice to know but doesn’t drive action diminishes the value of the system. The key is having the right information, in the right format, at just the right frequency so that users can take action and improve line performance. If the information does not support increased safety, environmental awareness, customer satisfaction, improved quality, line run time or cost reduction, why bother? Operators have enough on their plates just keeping the line running. Don’t burden them with noise that doesn’t add real value. If they don’t see leadership acting on information they become complacent with their role of capturing and documenting that information. If it doesn’t drive improvement, don’t do it. Again, more information is not necessarily better if it doesn’t provide a tangible benefit.
  8. Number eight, so who’s counting. Targeting the elimination of paper alone – Digitization is a current buzz word that is attracting a lot of interest. Eliminating paper transactions reduces mistakes and provides real-time access to this information. Both worthy objectives. However, in today’s lean manufacturing environment this activity might not lead to a reduction in operating costs. To achieve a real step change, an analysis of the current paper and process flows needs to be conducted to understand the distribution and use of that information. Real-time information can overwhelm the recipients unless the process requirements and filters are defined to manage it effectively. Paper to glass without process refinement provides the information faster but might not provide any other tangible benefit.

In summary, developing and deploying an MES is a huge undertaking. But it IS possible to avoid failure. In fact, a smartly deployed MES can have a positive transformative effect on an organization. MES initiatives should be a holistic activity that encompasses the entire organization. If it is imposed from above or by a single department without aligning current processes and engaging the entire effected organization, it will probably fail and certainly be sub-optimized. We have the experience in defining and aligning People, Process and Technology. If you’re considering a new MES or are dissatisfied with your current one, call. We can help. Find more information on our MES Solutions Page