Navigating through the Smart Factory Journey and Making the Right Choices

Manufacturers today are being drawn into making a choice between Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) and IIoT platforms to create their Smart Factories. Having choices is always good; admittedly, making a choice between MES and IIoT platforms is not an easy one. But leaders in manufacturing, attempting to unlock the promises held by Industry 4.0 technologies, need to decide what works better for them–MES or IIoT platforms?

Most manufacturers would turn to their vendors to weigh the pros and cons of both in a bid to resolve the dilemma. Unfortunately, the vendor’s answer to, “Is MES or an IIoT platform the right solution for my Smart Factory?” depends on what the vendor’s sales portfolio contains. #Naturally.

Most manufacturers already know that MES and IIoT platforms are stepping stones to a Smart Factory. In reality, the journey of a Smart Factory begins with MES and doesn’t really end there! IIoT platforms collect and integrate data from a wide range of IT and OT technologies (sensors, controllers, gateways) which can then be monitored and visualized in real-time. Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence can be applied to the data to extract new insights. IIoT platforms also make remote monitoring and predictive maintenance possible. Most importantly, the platforms enable new business models based on usage, location, etc., bringing down costs. These capabilities can’t be catered to directly by MES platforms.

MES is powerful in distinctly different ways, which is why it has become the technology of choice that manufacturers depend on. MES reduces friction between departments, operations and systems in a factory; it improves asset management and integrates production lines into supply chains to drive manufacturing excellence. MES platforms have the capability to integrate with equipment for real-time monitoring and their primary purpose is Business Process Management (BPM) which is not a native function that can be performed by an IIoT platform.

Most manufacturers would want a combination of MES and IIoT platforms and features. To an extent, this is becoming possible. Today, IIoT and MES products have additional functionality that offer a flavor of both. MES platforms have an IIoT layer which allows for integration with the shop floor for real time monitoring. IIoT platforms have a BPM component for process mapping of the type used by MES solutions. But the mix of IIoT and MES functionalities that initially appears attractive, quickly begins to look confusing because there is no simplistic way to arrive at the right mix.

One practical and grounded way to make a decision is to consider key use case for guidance: Pick a platform with an IIoT lineage, with some relevant MES functionalities, where the primary use case is to improve asset management decision making and get real-time visibility into plant performance; pick a MES platform, where the goal is to manage end to end operations in the factory value chain.

We recommended a solution on MES when one of our customers wanted to achieve full backward and forward traceability along with real time shop floor monitoring. This is because it required the system to track all the elements of people, process and data right from raw material stores to finished goods warehouse. On the other hand, when there was a requirement of tracking the equipment performance and implement predictive maintenance in a fully automated machine shop, our recommendation was the IIoT platform.

In many scenarios, there is a need for both. And MES and IIoT platforms do, and can, co-exist when the right architecture and solution scope are defined.

The decision, of course, becomes easy when you keep in mind that Smart Factories do not have a fixed “end state.” Your Smart Factory ecosystem must be unique but ever evolving—and that is a sure-fire strategy to stay ahead.

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