The actual features available in individual MES software packages vary widely. This is an overview of the most common features and what you should look for in each. Let’s look at them by overall function.
Order Processing and Planning Features
Master production scheduling: The MES should offer the ability to plan production orders based on certain criteria such as line capacity or resource availability.
Order prioritization: The system should allow prioritization of certain orders based on customer value or order due date.
Advanced planning and scheduling: This feature expands upon basic scheduling and order prioritization to allow re-planning and re-scheduling based on optimization algorithms (e.g., to increase output, to increase profitability, to delight VIP customers first, etc.).
Production workflow modeling: This feature allows for modeling of all steps in the manufacturing process to optimize production.
Job tracking: The MES should offer a real-time job status for any order on the floor.
Work-in-progress tracking: The system needs to show how much and where all materials are staged on the floor.
Workload projections: This feature integrates order forecast data to show potential scheduling and resource needs.
Change management: If a customer changes an order, the system needs to incorporate this information and update planning for different materials, equipment, or processes.
Output: The MES receives information on how many products are completed in a given time frame. This information can be inputted manually or received from a machine interface.
Quality management: This features collects information on defects and corrections made.
Product genealogy tracking: This allows monitoring of the progress of units, batches, or lots of output to create a full history of the product. Complete traceability of the product includes the assembly operators and the machines or resources used in the manufacturing process. The traceability capabilities provide for n-level bill of material (BOM) assembly and configuration.
Managerial and Documentation Features
Document management: The MES can manage key documents such as CAD drawings, standard operative procedures (SOPs), and product specifications, among many others.
Downtime management: This feature schedules and tracks downtime on the manufacturing floor.
Labor skills: Some MES offer a place to record and store information on employee certifications and competencies, usually used for ISO or other quality programs.
Shift events: This is a digital record of events such as line setup, tool changes, material switches, and process adjustments.
Overall equipment effectiveness: This feature tracks how effective equipment is operating based on performance, loading, and availability metrics.
Statistical process control: This advanced reporting feature provides information on process variation and process capacity.
Supplier quality: The MES can document supplier quality non-conformance, including what happened and how it was managed.
Traceability: This feature provides a post-production genealogy of materials and item processing for quality improvement and regulatory compliance.
Waste tracking: The MES can capture information on material waste in the manufacturing process.
What to Look For in an MES System
While software features are important in your MES selection, you also need to consider larger system issues.
Security: The system should offer multiple layers of security as well as data encryption. Each user should only be allowed access to the functions necessary to do their job. The encryption helps protect proprietary and sensitive information.
User interface: A comprehensive MES should provide multiple user interfaces based on functionality. It should also offer the ability to customize the interface at the user level.
Robust API: To function fully, an MES needs inputs from multiple sources. It is important for the MES to offer a robust API to handle transfer of key data.
Well-built reporting capabilities: MES software generates tons of data. To access the information held in the data, the system must have a strong reporting capability. It should provide built-in reports as well as the ability to customize them.
Cross-platform support: The MES should allow people to access it using different operating systems and devices.
In-depth configuration: Every factory floor is different. The MES needs to offer the ability to configure the software to customize it to your operations.
Ability to customize: Sometimes configuration changes are not enough. Some MES suites offer developer libraries to allow your own IT team to develop custom modules for your operations. Not a critical need for everyone, but nice to have for some.
Support availability: It is important to match support with operation levels. If your manufacturing is 24/7, getting support only between 8AM and 5PM Mondays through Fridays is not a good support model.
Training: MES systems are highly complex and some of your staff will need to undergo training to manage and configure it. The MES provider should offer training with its product.
Integration support – Part of installing an MES is integrating it with existing systems (ERP, HMI, PLC, etc.). The provider should offer integration expertise to help with installation.
Selecting the Best MES
Ultimately, the features that are most important are the ones that fit your company’s needs. Here is a brief guide to selecting the right MES software package for your manufacturing operations.
Step 1: Determine Your Company’s Specific Needs
Not every factory floor needs all the features outlines above. It is important to understand what you need now and what you will need in the future. This may require bringing in manufacturing engineers, management, floor personnel, and even maintenance to identify your operation’s specific needs. Make sure you include representatives from all departments in the discussions.
Step 2: Compare Available Features against Defined Needs
Once you know your needs and have weighted them based on whether they are critical or “nice to have,” the next step is to start researching the MES software packages available. Your prioritized list of needs will help you identify which packages can work for you and which will not. After doing comprehensive research and elimination, you should have a shortlist of viable candidates.
Step 3: Read Software Reviews & Talk to References
Like any other piece of software, an MES is going to have online software reviews available. Check out multiple reviews for each package on your short list. Look at reviews that are not posted on independent websites, and try to find those from companies in the same industry as you, or of the same size. Look at what is said in both positive and negative reviews. You can also contact software vendors to request a list of references. Again, try to focus on companies that face similar challenges as you. Using these reviews and references, you should be able to bring your list down to two or three likely candidates.
Step 4: Ask for a Demo
Contact a sales representative at each of the companies on your shortlist to arrange on-site demonstrations. The demos should not be standard marketing pitches, but should address your organization’s specific needs and challenges. Ask questions about any functionality not included in the demo or trial. Take your time reviewing the results.
Step 5: Select the Best Software
Using the criteria you developed in the first step, select the MES that would work best for your company. The time you take to go through this process will result in a system that works for you today as well as in the future.
This information will help you determine which MES software system is the best for your company.