Category Archives: Understanding MES

Bridging the Gap between Your PLM and Manufacturing

Manufacturing and engineering are both symbiotic and disjointed. While manufacturing relies on engineering to do their work, engineers are not trained to provide manufacturing exactly what they need at the design phase; that’s further downstream.

These key differences require a bridge between the PLM tools in engineering and production operations on the shop floor.

It All Starts in Design

Engineers create a long list of documents during product design to ensure a product meets the customer’s needs and can be manufactured with the available materials, tools, machinery and people. Different products require different levels of complexity, including drawings, specifications, designs, materials, measurements and other detailed lists of requirements. A Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) system keeps all the information organized for the engineer.

This diversity, however, makes it more difficult for manufacturing, where work moves quickly and there’s not a lot of time to read. The PLM that was so useful during design cannot break down the work into operator-sized information packets for the shop floor.

Manufacturing Pushes the Pace

Manufacturing operates at a much faster pace than engineering. The shop floor doesn’t have time to digest complex information before beginning production. Even in the most labor-intensive, discrete production environments, operators work at the fastest possible pace.

Operators don’t have time to search for information on a drawing or spec sheet. If it’s not on the screen when operators need it, productivity and profitability fall drastically. Even a few minutes spent searching can make the difference between a profitable production run and a project overrun.

Manufacturers need to manage the production process with speed and precision; design engineers need details that inherently slow that production down.

Where is the Bridge?

The bridge lies between design and manufacturing. Design and manufacturing get the specific tools they need to do their jobs – tools that are significantly different.

  • PLM design is absolutely required in most modern, complex manufacturing settings. Complete control of engineering design increases competitiveness of the resulting product.
  • Engineering design for complex manufacturing can’t be done by the transactional ERP.
  • Current PLM product offerings meant to work in manufacturing require far too many interactions by the operators to be effective.
  • Companies need bi-directional data transfer between design and manufacturing. Production should provide valuable feedback to design.
  • Traditional MES systems (used on manufacturing shop floors) struggle to get information back to the PLM.

A Solution for Both Manufacturing and Design

Without the proper design, production can’t build correctly and without the detailed instructions, production can’t do its work. There is no sacrifice here that will work. As engineering information flows to the shop floor already, this part of the equation is complete. What’s missing is the critical link for manufacturing back to design and manufacturing engineering (there are holes in both areas traditionally).

What Can Help?

ERP systems can’t. These are transactional systems that will force the design and manufacturing engineers to separate every production step or list them as a single step without the associated, “nested” details that are so critical to the operators.

PLM systems can’t. We’ve already seen how these systems manage documents, but not the associated instructions. Operators can’t build from the documents, as they don’t have the time or experience, typically, to differentiate what specific work needs to be done at each step.

This leaves just the MES and even at that, most MES systems won’t touch the PLM without extensive programming and customization. Manufacturers also need process enforcement, work center or operator-based work instructions, quality control and access to all the PLM documentation that’s required to do the job.

Recently, we introduced a product platform that makes live communication between the PLM and the MES a reality, without the requirement for customization. While we understand many of the problems facing manufacturers, digging into this problem, we’ve found that we have only scratched the surface. Plenty of additional problems exist in connecting systems in the manufacturing environment. What other issues do you have? We’re interested to know.

Our goal is to break down the walls between engineering, design and the shop floor. That is where we see the real power of the Smart Factory or Manufacturing 2.0. Visit us online at and let us know what your biggest challenges are.


Making Sense of the MES Module Conundrum

If you buy a manufacturing software solution as “modules,” how much benefit and potential is lost with only a partial solution? What are you missing?

By David Oeters, Corporate Communications with CIMx Software

How many modules will it take to get the functionality you need? Illustration by

How many modules will it take to get the functionality you need? Illustration by

In 1997, MESA (Manufacturing Execution Systems Association) defined the scope of MES with 11 different functions. These functions include areas such as Quality Management, Labor Management, Data Collection & Acquisition, and Performance Analysis. Over the years, the scope and models used by MESA have changed, but the goal has remained the same – to provide a view of what can and should be accomplished with an enterprise system (MES) to increase performance.

Here is my problem – many suppliers offer piecemeal “module-based” systems as MES or Paperless Manufacturing. With a clearly defined scope for an enterprise system, how can you offer only a partial solution to a shop floor and expect them to operate at maximum efficiency? It’s like giving someone a few pieces of the puzzle and telling them to make it work.

For example, some companies offer Shop Floor Data Collection as a “module” to the main software system. It is an additional cost, and additional work to install. Sure, it may be marketed to the manufacturer as a bonus that can be “added” when they are ready, but without shop floor data collection you don’t have a complete solution. Other companies may offer Performance Analytics in a “Service Pack” with an additional cost, Maintenance Management in a Tooling Module, and Product Tracking and Genealogy as yet another installation because it’s not part of their core “Manufacturing Management or Paperless Management” solution.

It makes no sense! How can you offer a partial system and call it a “Manufacturing Solution?”  Why aren’t these pieces fully integrated into a cohesive solution? Why does the product have to be doled out piece by piece? Is this really a better way to manage information on the shop floor and control the elements of production?

The Foundation of a Total Solution

An MES should provide the foundation for production. Information enters the system and is managed and controlled throughout the production process before it is moved to another enterprise system. The problem with the flawed “module” approach to MES implementation is it leaves holes in the foundation – holes that create errors and inefficiencies. Production just disappears in those gaping holes as your team scrambles to fill the hole with non-productive effort.

A complete shop floor software solution should provide the foundation of information management for production. Illustration by

A complete shop floor software solution should provide the foundation of information management for production. Illustration by

Consider this – if your “manufacturing management system” is just pushing orders to the shop floor and not collecting data, you don’t have a complete view of manufacturing or any way to effectively introduce process improvement. Quality control will be hindered and process enforcement incomplete. By removing an important function of a complete system just because it’s in a different module, you hurt the effectiveness of the entire system.

It would be like buying a car with the steering wheel missing, and the dealer asking you if you want the “4 Tires Upgrade.” Having only a few pieces of the puzzle offers only part of the solution. You might be happy with those parts, but the overall solution, and maximized system effectiveness, is still out of reach.

A Better Shop Floor Solution

So, why do companies offer modules if they are so problematic and ineffective? Many times it is because the system they offer was once focused on a single MES function. It might have started its life as Inventory system or a simple ERP, and the MES functionality was added later. It might even have been a whole different system that was purchased and smashed together to make a “new” product.

When looking for a manufacturing solution, position your shop floor for growth and improvement by making sure you have a true MES or Paperless Manufacturing solution. Don’t focus on a list of functions or individual requirements, but look at process and make sure there are no “holes” in the solution. The system needs to provide a complete foundation for production management.

This is why CIMx doesn’t offer modules. We offer the complete solution to every customer. Once installed, customers turn on and use the functions they need, and can add new features and functions at their own pace because the entire solution is in place and waiting.

Don’t be fooled by the Module conundrum, and end up purchasing a partial solution that leaves your shop floor searching for the missing piece of MES puzzle. Want to learn more, or talk about what a Paperless Manufacturing solution could do for you? Give us a call, we’re happy to help.

How You Can Embrace the Full Potential of Paperless Manufacturing

An MES is more than a list of features.  Maximize the impact of a new system by embracing positive changes it will encourage in your shop floor culture.

By Kristin McLane, President of CIMx Software

Manufacturers often ask how to unlock the full potential of a digital shop floor.  Many think it’s a cool feature, innovative function, or special training session.

My answer, always, is to look at the shop floor culture.  Consider the human element.  No software system, special feature, nifty function, automated process, extraordinary lesson, KPI, or analysis tool will get you where you need to be.  The software provides the foundation for process improvement and will immediately deliver benefits, but to unlock the full potential of the system, you need to develop the human element – study how the people, processes, system, tools and material interact, then focus on how the software will support the human element.

Looking Beyond Features and Functions

Consider the human element as you implement a new shop floor system to ensure maximum value for your investment.  Illustration by

Consider the human element as you implement a new shop floor system to ensure maximum value for your investment. Illustration by

Consider this scenario – accidents happen on the shop floor.  Most will be errors in production builds, scrap in the making, but sometimes an operator or machine will fail to perform a task correctly.  What do you do then?

Most times, we simply solve the issue as quickly as possible.  We fix the machine, seek medical attention for injuries, and red tag the scrap.  After all, product is backing up and customers are waiting.  At that point, information on the error is sent to Quality Engineering or a safety board.  Problem is, once production is flowing again and the issue is no longer critical, no one is in a hurry to find a solution and whatever documentation you have is aging.

Without a permanent solution, the error will likely occur again, continuing to plague production like an itch you just can’t reach.

The Paperless Manufacturing Solution

Military pilots utilize a post-flight debriefing process to eliminate errors.  They will cover, replay, reconstruct, reflect and redirect every action on a flight.  It’s the most effective way to determine everything that went wrong and right during a session of work, and ensures improvement for the next flight.

During cover and replay, the pilot talks through the entire flight.  Through visualization, they will review each step of the flight plan.  Rather than simply listing what went right and wrong, offering a snap judgment of each action, they discuss the work, leaving more room for discussion and reflection.

A paperless manufacturing system provides an immediate “discussion board” for manufacturing.  The shop floor operator can describe the work done prior to the error.  This immediate feedback provides invaluable insight, offering creative solutions an engineer may not be able to deliver in the  weeks after the error occurred.

Evaluative tools like this may not be practical after every shift, but a paperless system can create a feedback loop between the shop floor operators and engineers.  Operators can leave a message attached to an order, which the engineers can retrieve and review as needed.  The paperless system enables the reflection and reconstruction used so effectively by pilots.  Continuous improvement systems such as Lean, also rely heavily on continuous feedback and giving end-users a voice in improvement.

Redirection, the final step in flight analysis, has the pilot leap from the previous flight to the next.  It asks what he or she would do differently.  Through visualization, they work to see the steps in their mind.  Visual learning is a powerful tool, helping bring the lessons learned to life.  A paperless system utilizes visual learning to improve work instructions with videos and multi-media tools, helping eliminate mistakes. The system can even track users who open and watch a video, giving you an idea of how effective each learning tool is.

Paperless Manufacturing and the Human Element

Granted, the shop floor isn’t an airplane, and your operators may not be pilots, but consider the pilot culture, where every mistake can mean death, and how they go about eliminating errors and constantly improving.  Consider what a culture like that would mean for your business.

Paperless manufacturing and MES provides tools that eliminate errors and enable improvement, but to maximize the solution you need more than tools.  You need a culture that embraces the solution and is ready for improvement.  You need to not only implement the software, but integrate it with your culture.  Don’t focus solely on the tools the software provides, but how you use the tools.  Spend time to understand the human element and how it will fit with the software tools.  Look for solutions that are adaptable, supporting your shop floor culture and processes instead of demanding conformity.  The software should grow with your company as you implement changes to the culture.

The best solutions are ones that support your work process, and can adapt when and how you need it.  Look beyond the list of features and functions, because every company can provide those, and consider the human element.

Solve Problems, Not Symptoms, with MES

Maximize the value of your paperless manufacturing system by targeting the root cause, and not just the symptoms, of your shop floor problems.

By Kristin McLane, President of CIMx Software

Save yourself time, money and frustration when solving shop floor issues by focusing on the problem, not the symptom.  Illustration by

Save yourself time, money and frustration when solving shop floor issues by focusing on the problem, not the symptom. Illustration by

I had a neighbor once with a hole in her roof.  It wasn’t a big hole, but water dripped into her wall during a bad rain.  My neighbor didn’t fix the hole; instead she kept a bucket of paint and covered the water stain every few months.  “It’s easier to paint than get on the roof,” she once told me.

Many times, symptoms are easier to identify than the actual issue causing the problem.

When all is not going well on the shop floor – failed audits, quality control issues, slow orders, missing parts, confusion – it’s not always easy to pinpoint the cause.  Every single one of these issues impacts the schedule, which quickly becomes the culprit.  No matter the underlying issue, a missed deadline demands attention.  So, some cling to scheduling as the problem to fix, never discovering the real problem.

It’s slapping another coat of paint on the water-damaged wall.

Many customers look for dynamic scheduling solutions because they see a shop floor symptom (missed deadlines) and dynamic scheduling offers an easy solution (like a bucket of paint).  Truth is, a simple coat of paint isn’t going to solve much, and will never make much impact on your business.

A Closer Look at your Shop Floor Problems

We’re going to encourage you to look a little deeper.

Think about your personal schedule.  In the past 20 years, we’ve moved through a progression of devices – personal planners to smart devices.  No matter how diligent you are, or how robust the tool, scheduling isn’t going to increase the quality of your work.  Scheduling can only have minimal impact on efficiency; it simply selects the work to be done and places it in an open timeslot, then maybe offers innovative widgets to get you to do the work.  I admit, dynamic scheduling can synchronize the schedule of your shop floor, but that’s when the work of the tool is complete.  It’s not going to help your team achieve its goals.  Work quality isn’t going to magically improve.

To be honest, the benefits of scheduling on the manufacturing shop floor are limited.  Work can only move forward once each previous operation is completed, no matter the “schedule” you create.  An error or non-conformance isn’t going to solve itself because you know the “right” time to do the work.  Tighter scheduling is not going to correct the underlying problems hindering throughput.

Process Improvement graph.

No other shop floor solution addresses so many production challenges, or offers a bigger benefit. Illustration by

Dynamic scheduling offers short term answers to shop floor problems.  Many companies solve problems by throwing more manpower at production, or eke out a little more production from a machine or two, but these are short-term solutions.  Tomorrow the same problem may come back.  Scheduling is a critical component for a shop floor, however, if the planning and workflows aren’t optimized, no amount of money (on a scheduling tool, overtime or additional operators) will solve the real problem.

It would be like spending money on buckets of paint and repair projects, while the hole in the roof waited for the next rainstorm.

MES and paperless manufacturing offer a broad range of tools and solutions for the shop floor.  No other product benefits the shop floor in so many ways, directly addressing the root cause of problems hindering production.  Many manufacturers find a solution to the original shop floor problem through the paperless system, and then discover other benefits they may not have known were there.

Talk to an engineer about shop floor issues, and work on the root problems causing the issues.  Expand the conversation beyond simply the schedule, and look at what is really causing the production delays.   We recommend an engineer be involved in the sales process from the very beginning, to identify issues before determining or selecting a solution.  Your shop floor team can provide both insight and focus on operations.

Many times, the solution to the problem is much simpler (and less expensive) than the solution to the symptom.  Once you’ve looked a little deeper at the real problem, the final solution will often deliver a wealth of other benefits.

Care and Feeding of Your MES or Paperless Manufacturing System

Maximizing the ROI and benefit of your shop floor system isn’t hard, if you plan for regular upkeep and maintenance of the system.

By David Oeters, Corporate Communications with CIMx Software

This spring, I planted a garden in the back yard.  With the kids, I tilled the ground, added fertilizer and topsoil, put up tomato cages, and carefully planted seeds.  I’m happy to report, our efforts worked.  In just a few days we saw new growth peek out of the ground.  There are leafy green lettuce, prickly tendrils of cucumbers, and tomato vines slowly making their way up the cages.

Like any garden, your paperless manufacturing system requires a little attention to continue to operate efficiently.

Like any garden, your paperless manufacturing system requires a little attention to continue to operate efficiently.

But, here’s what I’ve come to learn… planting a (successful) garden requires some work!  We now have a “watering schedule,” and each night one of us takes the hose and waters the garden.  On the weekend, we pull weeds.  We’ve added more stakes for the wayward tomatoes that want to grow out, not up.  Keeping the belligerent cucumber in line is daily task.  But, we’ve already made our first salad from lettuce in the garden, so the diligence in our upkeep is paying off.

I see a lot of similarities between an MES or paperless manufacturing system and my garden.

Any good MES (or garden) project starts by studying your current processes and work flow, then formulating a requirement list.  Then you have to plan the project, coordinate schedules with your team, gather the tools and materials and put it all together.

But the work doesn’t stop with the installation, which I didn’t realize when the garden was planted.  You need to keep the system up and running with regular maintenance.  Change is constantly happening on the shop floor.  There are new processes, new technology, new tools and new employees.  Every change subtly alters how you might be using the system, or how the system might be supporting your shop floor processes.  This is where simple upkeep and basic maintenance can have a substantial positive impact on your investment.  Here are a few basic tips to keep in mind as you evaluate paperless manufacturing vendors or plan your own installation:

  • Is there a cost for patches?  Face it, with any complex computer system there will come a time for a patch.  It’s part of the basic maintenance of the system.  Find out if there is a cost associated with a patch.  Does the system you purchased have a patch, maintenance and upkeep plan, and who is managing it?  How will it work?  These answers will have a direct impact on the ROI.
  • Make sure your MES vendor offers value when it comes to upkeep, maintenance and upgrades.

    Make sure your MES vendor offers value when it comes to upkeep, maintenance and upgrades.

    What about upgrades?  As new technology is introduced to the market, new features and functionality will be available for the system.  Before you install a system, look at the cost (if there is one) for an upgrade.  Some systems offer upgrades free of charge (or for a minimal cost), ensuring you aren’t looking for a new MES or paperless system every few years once your current system can no longer adequately support your shop floor.

  • How much does basic service cost?  Even if you aren’t planning on making any changes or updates to the system now, there may come a time when you need a basic service.  These services could include a custom report, an integration to another system, or a data migration.  Look at the service costs when evaluating vendors.
  • Does the vendor offer a schedule or price guarantee?  If not, then keep in mind the initial project estimate may not resemble the final price you pay for the system, especially if you are charged for the basic upkeep such as patches or continuing training.
  • Can your team configure or customize the system?  Face it, some vendors will charge you less up front, knowing that you must turn to them for any configuration or customization to the system.  Ask about the administrative functions of the system, and how the configurations are handled.

Many of these questions seem simple, but the answers will have an impact on the final cost of your paperless manufacturing system and the ROI.  Even as you install the software, change is happening, affecting the overall effectiveness of the system.  Basic maintenance through patches, upgrades and further training, will help ensure the software continues to deliver positive benefits to you and your team.

Think of it like the garden… without basic upkeep, the cucumber would slowly strangle the tomatoes, weeds would overwhelm the lettuce, and a few days of no rain would turn the leaves brown.  A little bit of work ensures a healthy garden and a continuing ROI (and no one wants their MES to strangle their ERP).

Questions, or want to see how CIMx helps our customers optimize their system with a dedicated product engineer?  Give us a call or leave a message, we’re happy to help.

Developing a Vision of Paperless Manufacturing and MES

Understanding the CIMx Vision for Paperless Manufacturing offers an insider’s view of what drives us to make the best product for our customers, and makes clear what paperless manufacturing can do for you.

By David Oeters, Corporate Communications with CIMx Software

 “What is your vision for paperless manufacturing?”  I’ve gotten this question countless times.

The easy answer would be to repeat the tagline on our business cards, or prepare an elevator speech with a list of software features and sweet-sounding promises.  But, to be honest, that’s not a vision.  A vision should be bigger than 15 carefully selected words in a sales pitch.  It should be more than mere marketing.  A vision should define who you are and create a connection to the listener.

So, this is our vision.  We call it a “Day in the Life with Paperless Manufacturing” because we don’t see our system as a list of features, an installation method or a percentage of process improvement (but we can share all that if you want), but a better way to manufacture every day.  Here you go… let us know what you think!

A strong MES offers paperless manufacturing, increased collaboration, and process control on the shop floor.  Image by

A strong MES offers paperless manufacturing, increased collaboration, and process control on the shop floor. Image by

Plant Manager

Plant manager John Rush arrived at his office; coffee clutched in his hand, and turned on the computer.  As it was booting up, he thought back to last year when every morning was a hurried meeting to determine the status of shop floor orders.  Sales and customer service worried about priority jobs falling behind schedule, while operations tried to make it all work with resources that never seemed to be enough.  The whole process was more guesswork and assumptions than facts.

This morning, with the paperless manufacturing solution in place, John glanced at his dashboard to see the current status of all shop floor orders; completed work; work on hold and work in progress.  He quickly determined the priorities with sales and customer service and scheduled the day’s work assignments.  He digitally sent morning alerts to Manufacturing Engineers for rework.  All the work done in last year’s hour-long meeting was complete in 10 minutes and less than a half cup of coffee.  He leaned back and finished his coffee before moving on to the next task.

Manufacturing Engineers

The Manufacturing Engineers, Ed and Susan, received the rework orders through the paperless manufacturing system and quickly updated the work plans.  The new plans are quickly sent through Production Control to shop floor workstations to replace the previous information.  The engineers know production operations can only work on the latest, most accurate work plans, unlike past years when the morning was a rush of reworked plans being assembled and carried to the floor, while production control reassigned work, and supervisors trained workers for new processes.

“Remember how long it took to print and assemble build books?” Ed asked Susan.

MES guides work and processes on the shop floor. Image by

MES guides work and processes on the shop floor. Image by

Susan smiled, “Yes, and remember how many mistakes we made doing it,” she replied.  With so many moving parts, mistakes happened.  Paper errors caused production delays, human errors led to the inaccurate work plans or plans going to the wrong work station.  Many times, production ground to a halt while printers churned out paper or employees waited for plans which are now sent digitally with no errors.  In the past, every day felt like a crisis waiting to explode because nothing worked as smooth as it should.

Today, Ed and Susan were able to update the work plans from the Best Practices library with the push of the button.  They attached short training videos and multimedia materials from the resource library to ease training.  Production control reassigned work within the system, and each shop floor employee received only the most relevant and current work plans, training videos, and supplemental production material.  New work orders are sent digitally to all assigned workstations.  Their morning work complete, Ed and Susan start work on a new training video of a set-up process.

Quality Assurance

Production had begun on the shop floor, and Steve in Quality Assurance is monitoring all quality metrics being measured on the shop floor at his desk.  With the paperless manufacturing system, process enforcement ensures shop floor quality checks at each stage before more work can be released.  “Before paperless manufacturing,” Steve explained.  “I used to give my cell phone number to the shop floor and ask them to call me if there was a non-conformance.  I don’t even want to think about how many times I had to put projects on hold because it seemed like non-conformances would all hit at once.  Sometimes we had work stations down for 30-45 minutes while they waited for me.  And without process enforcement, many non-conformances slipped by in the rush to make up for lost time.  Accumulating scrap and major, costly rework was our only option.”

This morning, Steve saw a major non-conformance at Workstation 20.  From his desk, Steve ordered work stopped at the Workstation, and sent Ed and Susan an order for a rework plan.  Within 10 minutes, Workstation 20 had the rework plan and production resumed.

Does your shop floor run like a well-oiled machine, or a wheezing engine?  Photo by

Does your shop floor run like a well-oiled machine, or a wheezing engine? Photo by

Shop Floor

Later in the day, Greg, a shop floor operator, was collecting data before the completion of the next operation in Work Order 4334.  He thought back to a time when he would scramble, looking for a pencil to write data directly on the build book, which clerks would use for data entry.  There were times he missed writing a number down, and struggled to remember it at the end of the day.  Too many times data entry ended up being a “best guess” that caused problems in audit reviews.

Greg stepped around his workstation; happy he could use a laptop and not carry a build book. He always struggled to find a place to set the build book, many times papers spilled everywhere.  On his laptop, he opened the next operation on the Work Order, only to get a sequence alert on the system.  Greg opened the correct operation and started work again.  Sequence errors once required QA and rework; sometimes an entire new build book had to be assembled.  With paperless manufacturing, sequence errors are no longer a problem.

Customer Service and Sales

In the front office, Anne receives a call from a customer about an order shipped last month.  In particular, there is a problem with quality acceptance on the welds.  Anne asks the customer to wait a moment while she retrieves the as-built records from the system.  She sends a copy to the customer.  The customer finds the problem, and requests a change order with new specifications.  Anne passes the call to Production Control, who put a hold on the order.  Ed and Susan make changes to the work order, and the revised order is sent directly to Greg at his Work Station.  Greg opens the revised orders and continues work.  With paperless manufacturing, the change order should cause minimal delay in the order.

As the day closes out, John the Plant Manager checks the status on jobs complete, jobs pending, WIP, and jobs on hold.  He notices a priority job falling behind and reassigns the shop floor to ensure the deadline is met.  John creates a report and sends it to sales, then calls a meeting for Ed, Susan and Anne to assess progress and reset priorities for tomorrow.  Each prepares a report in the system to share at the meeting.

“Having real-time access to data, and knowing information is getting to the right person at the right time, is more than a convenience,” John explains.  “It makes us more productive, letting us focus on priority tasks and solve problems.  It gives us real control over the shop floor, eliminating production errors and saving us money every day.  I can’t imagine life without paperless manufacturing.”

How Do You Steer the Shop Floor? The Difference Between MES and ERP

Struggling to understand how an MES and Paperless Manufacturing will help your shop floor?  Look no further than a parking lot for an easy-to-understand answer.

By Kristin McLane, President of CIMx Software

We often turn to the familiar for help explaining the unfamiliar.  This is why we often use the line, “It tastes like chicken,” when struggling to describe a new food.  We know chicken, and it creates a comfortable, easily relatable connection.

Who is driving your shop floor?  Photo by

Who is driving your shop floor? Photo by

This may be why so many of us see an ERP and MES system as interchangeable, never seeing the critical difference between the two.  An ERP is familiar.  We understand ERP – accounting, payroll, billing and records.  MES is the shop floor, the heart of manufacturing that can be a confusing hurricane of machines, tools, processes and materials.  We turn to the familiar and make a connection (maybe even sub-consciously) between ERP and MES.  The roles and systems become mixed in our mind.

But it doesn’t work that way, and trying to force an ERP to do the work of an MES usually has a negative impact on your business.  I’m going to take a different approach this time, and turn to the familiar to explain the difference…

Think of your manufacturing business as a car.

An ERP works like the windows and mirrors on your car.  It offers a convenient way to view, track and plan your business.  With an ERP (or a rear view mirror) you can track where you have been.  You use the windshield to see where you are going.  Look out another window to see where you are.  Orders come in, money goes out, old employees retire and new ones arrive as you track customer data, create invoices, look at expenses and more.

But a car, and your business, isn’t just windows and mirrors.  You need an engine to move the car, and a way to guide and control the engine.  An MES is the dashboard and GPS of your organization, giving visibility and control of the engine, the shop floor and manufacturing, to you.

With a good dashboard and GPS, you have the directions and maps (visuals) to where you need to go.  You have a wheel, gas pedal, brake and more to give you control over the engine.  You can track progress and receive warnings when something goes wrong.  By organizing and transmitting work instructions digitally, collecting shop floor data, tracking quality, and controlling production, you control the heart of your operation.

Pushing a car is like running a shop floor without MES - You could do it, but there is a much better way. Photo by

Pushing a car is like running a shop floor without MES – You could do it, but there is a much better way. Photo by

Sure, you might be able to find the local mall without a map, and if you point the car VERY carefully, you may never need to turn the wheel, but life is much easier with a good dashboard, GPS, and a car you can steer.  An MES delivers the drawings, blueprints, details, inspections, directions and other information you need to build your product.  It doesn’t just hand it to you in a heap.  It organizes it, just like a GPS or dashboard.  It provides turn-by-turn assistance, then tracks real-time data during production and gives you control of the process.

When you run into an issue (and who doesn’t on the shop floor), an MES can help.  A GPS offers advice on avoiding construction and adjusts the arrival time based on your current speed.  An MES provides workarounds for production problems, re-routes work around machines not functioning, and gives you real-time access to product ship times.  To put it simply… windows don’t give you that level of control.

And just like a car, I wouldn’t want to drive (or ride in) a car with no windows.  It’s not pleasant to travel with no idea of where you are going or where you’ve been.  I’m also much happier driving with my GPS and a reliable dashboard giving me visibility and control over the engine, direction and speed of the car.

Make sense?

When asked, “What is MES?” I’ve heard people start quoting ANSI/ISA-95 standards, or listing system functions and features, but it’s not until I imagined riding in a runaway shop floor (or a fast-moving car) with no brake or steering wheel did I realize how critical MES was for a manufacturing operation.