“Is a system that was designed pre-IoT still the right system for the journey towards digitalization?”

With this question, a recent survey of manufacturing execution systems (MES) captured a growing concern among organizations.

MES are a tested means of coordinating, executing, and tracking manufacturing processes. But they were developed for a different era.

With more digital solutions available than ever, organizations are rethinking the role of the MES in the modern industry (we’re broadening the discussion to include the extended functionality offered by Manufacturing Operations Management, too).

In this post, we’ll review some recent research exploring the outlook for MES in the next decade in order to answer this question:

Is MES still relevant for today's manufacturers?

Future of MES in (a little more than) 100 Words

The future of MES is far from settled.

An unsatisfying answer, I know. But that’s what the data suggests.

Here’s the brief of it.

In the pharmaceutical industry, organizations overwhelmingly report that MES will “serve as the backbone for Pharma 4.0.”

Percentage of people who thing MES will be replaced by Pharma 4.0/IoT

Gartner’s 2020 MES Magic Quadrant, however, outlines a different trajectory for MES writ large (including ERP, PLM, Automation, and Pure MES solutions). The research firm finds that the industry is moving towards micro-solutions and applications, away from totalizing solutions.

Further, one of the leading MES providers recently argued that “MOM 4.0 is life with ‘no MOM’,” believing instead that IIoT platforms will perform the work previously done by operations management programs.

So what do these contradicting assessments mean?

They mean that with IIoT Platforms on the ascendance, MES/MOM will either need to pick up platform-like capabilities (application development, configurability, IIoT-connectivity), or find a way to integrate with platforms.

The problems MES were created to solve still exist. MES, however, are less and less the preferred solution.

MES will hold their market share to the extent that they can enable or integrate pointed, agile solutions.

The State of MES in 2020

So with these predictions in the open, let’s drill down deeper and look at the state of MES/MOM in the present.

What Manufacturing Execution System Vendors Are Getting Right

In the last year, confidence in MES has grown within regulated industries (Pharma, medical device, aerospace/defense).

According to a recent survey of pharmaceutical organizations, as many as 80% believe that IoT will not replace MES. Further, 39% of respondents believed that MES would disrupt the industry in the next decade. This is likely because of the range of capabilities offered, as well as MES ability to meet stringent regulatory requirements.

With so many headlines given to bleeding-edge digital technologies, this is a ringing vote of confidence for MES.

Bar chart of expected disruptors for pharmaceutical production

The only developments expected to be more disruptive are smart machines, sensors, and devices. To earn this distinction, MES beat a veritable buzzword bingo of much-hyped advances (edge/cloud computing, cell and gene therapy, machine learning, big data, new regulatory requirements, augmented reality, and more)

MES – Enduring Challenges

Beneath the surface, however, MES/MOM are plagued by some of the same challenges that have always made them difficult to work with. Namely, what they gain in range of functionality, scope, and centralization, they lose in complexity, cost, and the necessity of external software developers and systems integrators.

This state of affairs is clear from a glance at the “Cautions” Gartner attached to their coverage of each vendor in the MQ. Here are the key takeaways.

  • Pricing complexity – MES customers found that solutions’ pricing was opaque. After accounting for licenses, individual features, integrations, and ongoing support, containing costs proved difficult.
  • The Vendor is a De Facto Partner – With functionality comes complexity. As a result, MES customers rely heavily on their vendors to ensure the project's success. For vendors with strong professional services wings, this can be a selling point. But many organizations reported being a the mercy of the vendor to be “tedious and challenging.”
  • Extensive IT Support – MES are notoriously difficult to update and manage. Gartner consistently cautions that IT support is essential for solution success.
  • Does it Scale? – MES, by nature, are broad, encompassing solutions. So the effort required to scale and MES can often balloon costs and consume organizational resources.
  • Does “Off the Shelf” really mean “Off the Shelf”? – Many customers complained that the applications offered by MES/MOM vendors were not immediately usable. There is still a need in the market for application templates that work out of the box.

Key Observations

So without further ado, let’s outline what these observations mean for you and your operations.

Welcome to the Era of Applications and Micro-services

It’s hard to stress this point enough. While different reports may diverge on the details, they agree on this: applications are now an essential part of manufacturing workflows.

Indeed, the first page of Gartner’s MQ states this “Strategic Assumption”:

“By 2024, 50% of MES solutions will include industrial IoT (IIoT) platforms synchronized with microservices-based manufacturing operations management (MOM) apps, providing near real-time transaction management, control, data collection, and analytics.”

Note the similar conclusion in this statement by a leading MES vendor:

“We will reach a point where MOM as a separate layer of control will be delivered by a set of apps, some of which are specific to manufacturing operations, but most are IIoT apps running on the corporate platform. This will be the world of MOM 4.0 and running in a digital enterprise.”

While there’s broad agreement that apps are the future, it’s important to outline why.

Apps give a level of control, instrumentation, and extensibility currently lacking in many MES. For these reasons, they are a perfect complement to MES, adding flexibility and making it possible to supplement the functionality of MES as the digital era progresses.

How Much Are You Spending on Professional Services?

Cost and rigidity remain the greatest challenges facing the MES market.

Crucially, the bulk of the costs organizations incur during the life of an MES are likely to come from professional services, not from purchasing and licensing the solution itself.

In the era of applications, this trend is likely to continue as organizations modify, iterate upon, and version their solutions. The potential costs of IT and external developers can quickly outweigh the efficiency and data collection benefits that apps offer.

The best solutions will be those that give front-line engineers the ability to design and iterate upon solutions without significant IT involvement, and without enlisting professional services.

Can You Innovate with MES?

If the recent surveys of MES and MES users are accurate (we believe them to be), the answer to this question is:

“Yes, but…”

Yes, it is definitely possible to innovate with an MES. But, it’s difficult to innovate with MES alone.

The outlook for MES entering 2020 positive, and will remain so as long as MES continue to work cooperatively with IIoT Platforms and agile, modular solutions.

Taking advantage of the most exciting advances of the digital era (AI, IoT, smart devices) with MES will likely require more infrastructure and capability than MES can offer alone.

Conclusion: Harmonizing IIoT Platforms and MES

The core finding of both recent surveys is this:

MES solutions work best when supported by tools that enable agility, configurability, and flexibility.

In short, MES are hard to beat when it comes to reliability and reporting. But the cost of ongoing professional services, lack of flexibility, and the rigidity of MES solutions can cut deeply into margins. As a result, IIoT platforms have emerged as the best tool for addressing these challenges.

The pharma report summarized this state of affairs best:

“New systems and technologies are regarded as being complementary to existing ones, but can help to get a full picture of pharma production, make the manufacturing processes smarter and allow for better integration and continuous production.”

So as the next decade unfolds, we’re looking forward to seeing what’s possible as IIoT Platforms supplement and extend MES.

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