Are we seeing the return of the Custom MES, or is it something else?

The role of MES in the Industry 4.0 reality is a topic of debate and a source of critical misinformation. In general MES belongs to the era of automation and computer integrated manufacturing, i.e. Industry 3.0. MES or MoM came about in the 1990s to solve the challenges of coordinating and executing work on shop floors with the advent of computers. It really is a relic of the previous industrial era.

The challenge of coordinating and executing work on shop floors however has not changed. Manufacturing is increasing in complexity and the need to adapt to changing business requirements is accelerating. At the same time the advancement in computer technologies have ushered a new digital era that we now call Industry 4.0. How do we solve the shop floor operational challenge with these new technologies?

Are these new digital technologies making it attractive and maybe even necessary to develop custom manufacturing systems solutions, or custom MESs? For years we have advocated that companies focus on their core business competencies and leave the software development to expert best in class software companies. There are many horror stories of companies that are stuck supporting custom built software that is running their critical operations, why build and spend millions maintaining in house developed systems?

Yet the need to tailored solutions for shop floor operations is still valid and in fact even more critical as the rate of change to the business environment coupled with operational complexity increases. It seems like a case of history repeating itself since that is how MESs started in the 80s, however technologies have vastly evolved since. With the digital technologies that are now available we are going well past the simple ability to customize. We are taking a very different approach that is operations and human centric. It allows us to rapidly create tailored solutions that increase productivity by supporting frontline operators for each specific operation and activity.

This allows companies to once again opt to develop custom solutions to solve their manufacturing systems needs. Yet this time around they do not look like MES of the past, they are not custom solutions that are unique and require high cost and effort to manage and maintain. In the digital era solutions are built rapidly by the people that are closest to the operations, they are tailored to the frontline operator and help increase their productivity and all of this in a Cloud-Edge infrastructure that allows easy management and governance. There are a number of forces at play that are causing this to happen.

  • Emerging digital technologies, specifically no-code cloud based SaaS platforms provide user friendly ways to build tailored digital content with very quick ramp-up times. I.e. you don’t need software development skills.
  • There is a real business need to get the promised productivity gains from these digital technologies. In other words organizations have allocated money and people to get things moving in their digital transformation.
  • The new generation of workforce comes from the digital age (i.e. digital natives) and are used to in simple words, just download an app for that. They are confronted with what they see as antiquated software systems that are not really user friendly and their reaction is to find another app.
  • The new digital technologies aimed at the manufacturing operations space are in general human centered – they aim to solve (and support) what we as people do, whereas traditional MES is developed to automate a process.
  • Modern cloud and edge technologies provide a rich playing field for integration and capture of digital data to help bridge the digital divide. I.e. start capitalizing on productivity improvements while not having to decommission existing traditional systems.    

The transformational forces at play are unstopable at this point. The high skill and expertise level of current IT/OT owned systems are becoming a thing of the past. The new tailored manufacturing solutions can be built at a unprecedent speeds by people that are closer to the actual manufacturing process. We will not have unique and specific monolithic systems for each department or business function. The future digital factory will be supported by a network of digital components, apps, edge devices and tools will have been composed in a iterative and agile process, ie bottom-up. Solutions will emerge and mature over time based on continous improvement rather than a top-down design and development process. With that traditional hierachical thinking and approaches such as ISA-95/88 will become less relevant unless they are adjusted to fit the new digital reality.

Are we then seeing a case of history repeating itself? Will we see a resurgence of home grown MES solutions that we will in a few years pay dearly to maintain or replace? The answer is yes but not what you might expect. There will be some level of custom software being built but at the same time what we will se are tailored solutions that do not carry the burden of the custom system of the past. Modern digital technologies such as no-code platforms are democratizing the creation manufacturing systems solutions. They are transforming manufacturing systems software development to a process of composing digital content for the shop floor. They are more of an engineering and operations toolset rather than an IT system. Again we might use the term MES but these new solution will really not look like anything that resembles current MESs, they will consist of digital content that support human operations and digitize all activities and process in the plant. They provide unprecendet level of detail in the form digital data that is easy to use, analyze and interpert. They provide the foundation for digital maturity toward predictive and adaptable states. Companies adopting these platforms will be able to accelerate their maturity and their digital transformation.

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