Manufacturers considering software solutions often find themselves asking a very particular question: to what extent does software need to be customized for my particular operations? With the multiplication of specialized manufacturing software options in recent years–there are now a dizzying number of MES, MOM, and modular solutions–this fundamental question has only become more difficult to answer.
This article will help make the decision process a little easier by defining three important types of software: Commercial-Off-the-Shelf (COTS), Custom, and Customizable. It will explain the advantages and disadvantages of each. By the end, you’ll be able to ask the right questions to determine which is best for your operations.
Commercial-Off-the-Shelf solutions are ready-made configurations of MES or other manufacturing software systems. They are typically built to accommodate a wide variety of industry or vertical-specific use-cases, and compliant with common industry regulations.
COTS software offers several advantages. It’s less expensive to implement than custom solutions, easier to install and integrate, and comes with a wide variety of functionality. For organizations with fairly “standard” operations–scare quotes, because in our experience no operation is ever truly “standard”–COTS provides an affordable, easy to implement, tested means of coordinating a manufacturing facility.
The features that make COTS affordable and easy to implement are also the source of its disadvantages. While COTS systems offer significant cost savings in professional services and maintenance, this comes at the sacrifice of flexibility and ongoing support. It’s a truism that manufacturers using COTS solutions will need to fit their operations to the software, not the other way around. And because COTS software comes as a “pre-packaged” good, as it were, many manufacturers will find themselves paying for features they don’t use.
Further, poorly synced update schedules or poor compatibility with an ERP or specialized software can pose a significant operational risk. Minor software disruptions can cause downtime or incur significant IT costs, and the manufacturer may need to retrofit a COTS solution with custom updates to keep it functional. And they might not be able to integrate with newer digital developments (IoT, edge computing, cloud) without significant customization. For these reasons, the lifetime cost of COTS can be just as high as a custom solution.
As one commentator noted, “Competitive advantage [can be] achieved by applying COTS strategically… It’s not the technology itself but how it is used that creates sustainable value.”
Custom solutions are MES or other software that are designed and implemented to meet the needs of the customer. Custom-built MES are thus unique to the specific operations and challenges facing a customer.
Custom systems can be configured to cooperate with a manufacturer’s enterprise software, machines, and data collection without requiring significant changes to existing systems. Because they’re custom-built, they can be designed to work with newer digital technologies in addition to legacy systems. Custom manufacturing software offers a high degree of functionality, reliability, and control, and their licensing fees are typically less than a COTS solution.
Lower licensing costs shouldn’t be confused with lower costs overall, however. What a manufacturer implementing a custom solution might save in licensing fees, they’ll almost certainly pay in professional services. Custom MES solutions often have upfront installation and service fees that run well into the six figures. If requirements evolve or scope increases, so do service costs.
There are few additional aspects to custom solutions to consider. If their main benefit is customization, this can add complexity at scale. Many manufacturers need a way of comparing performance and operations across facilities. For organizations with many plants, it might be desirable to have consistent systems across locations. Moreover, custom systems are rigid. If they need to be updated, it can take a significant investment in time and IT resources to make necessary changes. Manufacturers considering custom software solutions should weigh the value of a given custom option against the difficulties that may arise replicating it.
This term tends to be a source of confusion. Custom MES are inherently customizable, but that’s not quite what we mean by “customizable” with regards to manufacturing software.
Customizable software solutions are those that allow engineers to update features or build applications without making changes to back-end systems. Often, this takes the form of a no-code platform.
Customizable solutions have several tangible advantages. They’re significantly less expensive than their COTS and custom counterparts, and they’re easier to implement. Further, customizable systems are flexible. Instead of locking manufacturers into a rigid configuration, customizable solutions enable users to make changes as their operations evolve. This means that frontline engineers can make changes without having to enlist IT and without having to sink considerable time into scoping, preparing, and pushing an update. They give workers without significant technical experience the ability to design and use robust, enterprise-ready applications for their toughest challenges.
The disadvantage to customizable systems is that they tend not to be “one and done” solutions. Where custom MES are built to manage a full manufacturing operation, customizable offer a range of specializations. For manufacturers who aren’t interested in replacing their MES, lightweight customizable solutions provide a means of adding agility and flexibility to workhorse software.
If you’re unsure which is right for you, we’d be happy to talk through your challenges and improvements. Reach out to us here, and we can help you find the best option.