MES vs. IIoT Platform—What’s the Difference?

The MES market is in a period of transition. 

With manufacturing technology maturing at an unprecedented rate, MES are adapting to a world where cloud, SaaS, and IIoT are the new normal. 

Of all of the technologies set to disrupt MES, one stands out: IIoT Platforms. So much so that Gartner prefaced their 2019 MES Magic Quadrant with this prediction: 

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

This post will examine what IIoT platforms mean for MES in practice. We’ll look at how IIoT platforms are extending–and even replacing–MES. By the end you’ll have a sense of the relationship between IIoT platforms and MES, and an understanding of what it means for you. 

What are IIoT Platforms? 

Like the phrase “Manufacturing Execution System,” “IIoT Platform” really describes a class of solution rather than any one specific tool or technology. 

In simple terms, IIoT platforms are tools for connecting shop floor processes to back-end systems–a middle layer. They usually have a hardware component (sensors, gateways, edge devices, interfaces) and a software component (application builders, analytics, integrations). 

Crucially, IIoT platforms are agile. 

Platforms allow manufacturers to build new applications for their unique processes, and then iterate upon those applications without upsetting the broader system.

These applications are extremely configurable, covering everything from inventory management and work order generation to production tracking to work instructions and inline quality. 

In essence, platforms support software that lets front line workers create new software. They’re tools for improving control, visibility, and agility in manufacturing. 

Why do MES need IIoT Platforms?

The prediction that MES will adopt platforms rapidly in the next five years is a vote of confidence for the emerging technology, but it begs a question: Why? 

The short answer is that IIoT platforms were designed to address the problems endemic to legacy MES systems. 

MES systems evolved to solve a particular set of production needs. They’ve come to serve those needs extremely well. 

But over time, MES became enormously complex, monolithic systems. As a result, manufacturers have come to accept high costs, slow deploy and development cycles, and difficult customizations as the cost of doing business. 

Platforms occupy the same functional space as MES, but they do so in a fundamentally different way. 

Instead of wrapping functionality into a centralized system, platforms operate as a collection of applications. Each application may handle only a small piece of an MES’s functionality (inventory tracking, machine monitoring, document management). Together, however, these applications become more than the sum of their parts, tracking and coordinating manufacturing processes from end-to-end. 

The application approach of platforms has some distinct advantages. 

For one, it allows manufacturers to modify individual applications when necessary. Instead of paying 5-figures for the vendor to modify a few lines of code, shop floor workers can make changes as necessary. 

Second, it enables an agile approach, dramatically reducing deploy times. Where MES projects typically follow a waterfall model, platforms enable teams to build applications fast and iterate upon them easily. This enables groups to build multiple applications in parallel, offering much faster time-to-value. 

Ultimately, platforms are about taking the monolith and breaking it into modules.  

How do IIoT Platforms relate to an MES?

In our experience, IIoT platforms enter the MES conversation in two ways. 

  1. Manufacturers choose an IIoT platform instead of an MES
  2. Manufacturers extend their MES with an IIoT platform

Let’s look at both in turn. 

When would you choose a platform over an MES?

According to Gartner, the MES market is a replacement market. As much as 80% of dollars spent on MES go toward replacing legacy systems.

Other manufacturers are looking for an MES-like solution, but don’t have the cash on hand for a multi-site deal or the appetite for such a long-term, risk-laden investment (the majority of respondents to a recent survey expressed fears that MES weren’t “future proof”). 

Manufacturers looking to replace an MES are faced with a simple question: 

Is an MES still the best tool for the job? 

In many cases, that answer is that platforms offer some distinct advantages over MES in critical eras. 

For one, platforms are capable of handling tracking and genealogy, quality, operations management, and process execution just as well as MES. 

Platforms offer end-to-end planning, tracking, and execution support, just as MES do. The platform aggregates all of the information necessary for production visibility and compliance, and makes it available in real-time. 

Again the critical distinction is this: Where MES assemble functionality into a monolith, platforms build a holistic digital manufacturing system out of individual applications. 

When would you extend an MES with a Platform

MES are a fact of life for many manufacturers. This is especially true in regulated industries. 

For these manufacturers, extending their MES is a way of preserving critical, validated systems while improving visibility and reducing cost. In these cases, platforms are a useful way of extending an MES–of building new functionality and agility on top of existing systems.

In these cases, the platform functions as a System of Engagement–the system that collects data and serves front line workers–while the MES remains the system of record. 

Here are some of the advantages of this arrangement. 

Data availability and process visibility

Platforms make production data usable. In their 2019 MES Magic Quadrant, Gartner found lack of data availability to be one of the most consistent complaints among MES users. Platforms are designed to make data visible and actionable. 

By connecting sensors, machines, systems of record (including MES and ERP), and human activity, platforms provide a comprehensive, real-time picture of manufacturing performance.

Not only does this eliminate the lag between when a process happens and when an engineer is able to analyze it (not to mention eliminating paper and the human errors it encourages). It makes it possible to solve any number of expensive manufacturing problems without upsetting critical systems. 

Simplify system security and management

Applications are fast becoming the norm for manufacturing processes and Manufacturing Operations Management. At present, this usually means that internal developers or IT are building applications, or else external consultants. 

Hard-coded applications can be a massive headache to manage.

For one, they’re not easy to modify. Because they’re custom coded, it requires professional developers–usually the ones who wrote them in the first place–to make adjustments. The potential for slow development cycles here is obvious. 

One OEM we work with described just how frustrating this process was. Every time a customer moved a machine or introduced a new product line, the OEM had to rewrite the applications for that machine. The result was stressed-out developers and unhappy customers. 

Second, it can be difficult–or impossible–to guarantee security across an enterprise’s stack of applications. Each application could have vulnerabilities. The interfaces between applications could have vulnerabilities. At scale, finding and securing these vulnerabilities is a daunting task at scale. Not for lack of skill, but because of the magnitude of the problem.

With platforms, IT can secure and manage a single platform, letting front line workers develop applications for their own processes. 

Empower the front line workforce

MES weren’t designed for the front line workforce. Platforms help those closest to manufacturing processes control them. 

By giving front line workers the ability to design solutions for their everyday challenges, platforms speed development cycles and preserve finite IT resources.

Conclusions

There’s no question that manufacturing systems are still necessary. In other words, no amount of new technology can make genealogy and history records, quality, operations management, process execution or any of the other needs fulfilled by MES obsolete. 

According to a recent survey, manufacturers are still confident that MES have a role to play in today’s world. 80% of respondents reported that MES would be the foundation for Pharma 4.0.

That said, it’s clear that new tools are needed to get the maximum value from your MES investment. 

Platforms offer one way of maximizing the value of your MES. Or, they’re a foundation for a new generation of manufacturing systems. 

If you’re curious what this could look like for you, get in touch