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MES vs. Operations Platforms

A comprehensive guide comparing traditional manufacturing execution systems and operations platforms to help you choose the right solution for your business.

Choosing the right systems to manage your operations is critical to ensuring your business remains competitive in today’s marketplace. With a growing number of connected worker technologies and operations platforms challenging traditional Manufacturing Execution Systems, it can be difficult to evaluate what solutions are best for your specific needs.

In this guide, we’ll conduct an in-depth comparison of two of the top options that leading manufacturers are turning to when it comes to powering their digital transformation: Traditional MES and Tulip’s Frontline Operations Platform.

Chapter 1: Overview

With more digital solutions available today than ever before, businesses across every industry are rethinking the role that legacy MES play in their operations. While MES have long been the preferred solution among enterprise businesses to coordinate, execute, and track manufacturing processes across the product lifecycle, they’ve lagged behind modern challenges plaguing today’s manufacturers.

As business environments have become more dynamic and with the introduction of new technology such as IoT, no-code, and machine learning, a new class of industrial platforms have become a common alternative, giving businesses more to consider when it comes to finding a system to help manage their specific production needs and challenges. Read on as we compare and contrast the traditional execution systems long-trusted in the industry with Tulip’s flexible, powerful, frontline operations platform.

A Comparison: Frontline Operations Platform vs. Manufacturing Execution Systems

Operations PlatformMES
What does it do?An operations platform is a connected data and process management tool that connects people, things (machines and devices), and systems used in a production or logistics process in a physical location.Very broadly, MES are responsible for managing resources, scheduling production, coordinating execution, and collecting production data, among many other applications.
FlexibilityExtremely flexible, can be configured to meet needsInflexible outside of prebuilt modules
ImplementationDozens of library apps, suites, connectorsCan take months to build new applications, very costly
FunctionalityStrong functionality Feature-rich modules, but lacks frontline workflows
Ease of UseVery easy to use for frontline workers and technical teamsDifficult, especially for use cases outside of prebuilt applications
IntegrationsStrong integrations with ERPs, IoT devices, APIsStrong integrations with ERPs, IoT but high upfront costs
PriceModest per-station pricing model, “high perceived value-to-price”Expensive upfront installation, services, and annual contracts

While at a high level, it may be difficult to distinguish between incumbent MES solutions and Tulip’s Frontline Operations Platform, some of the key benefits for the latter include:

Tulip requires no coding experience

The no-code flexibility of Tulip’s platform empowers those closest to the operations, engineers on the frontline, to build and configure applications that help them solve the challenges they encounter on a daily basis. This gives organizations and their teams the power to leverage their in-house process knowledge and domain expertise to create and update applications without extensive programming and IT resources.

Tulip is cloud-based

The platform is updated with regular releases, allowing users to access downloadable content and receive real-time, in-product support. This simplifies deployment, sharing, and extensibility.

Tulip has built-in analytics

The rich and varied data Tulip collects from humans, machines, devices, connectors can be stored and viewed in powerful, yet simple-to-configure dashboards and reports, not rigid tables or a separate add-on module that requires data manipulation.

Tulip has native IIoT and edge connectivity

With support for machines and devices built in, it’s simple to set up and collect data where you need it.

Tulip is GxP-ready

The platform was built to make compliance a seamless part of operations with continuous validation, as well as support for digital history records, permissions and controls, and authentication.

Tulip offers ready-to-use content

With the Tulip Library, new or experienced users can download and configure app templates, explore example apps, and add connectors.

While traditional MES are a tried and tested means of coordinating, executing, and tracking manufacturing processes, they only solve a subset of issues that Tulip can while being slow to implement, expensive to maintain, and difficult to update.

In the upcoming sections, we’ll further compare Tulip’s Platform to MES in three key areas:

  1. Total cost of ownership

  2. Data contextualization

  3. Upgrade process

5 Crucial Criteria When Evaluating Next-Gen MES Solutions

Chapter 2: Cost of Ownership

You’ve found a frontline operations platform that is no-code, IIoT-native and can replace your MES partially or fully. You are excited about augmenting human workflows, flexible deployments, and continuous improvements — but you have to do your due diligence and prove ROI.

With any new major investment, you may have questions about the total cost of ownership, such as:

  • How much of a time commitment and monetary investment will this require?

  • How about over the span of its lifetime?

  • How will this new system impact productivity?

  • How soon will we see value from this solution?

  • Will we be reliant on vendors?

  • What is the update process like?

We’ve summarized the answers to these questions with four different aspects beyond software licensing and hardware to consider when thinking about the Total Cost of Ownership for Frontline Operation Platforms vs Traditional MES solutions:

  1. Time-to-Value and the Cost of Implementation

  2. The Cost of Validation

  3. The Benefit of Empowering Workers

  4. The Cost of Maintenance and Updates

Chapter 3: Time-to-Value and the Cost of Implementation

Traditional MES

Traditional MES solutions are rigid and highly hierarchical, requiring a significant effort to plan and build a system. Large organizations can see implementation projects lasting multiple years. That’s multiple months or years of non-value-added time.

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A timeline of the traditional deployment of an MES system

As complexity increases, vendors become gatekeepers to the success of projects. To configure the solution to meet your needs, vendors often charge high fees for professional services, as these systems require extensive technical expertise.

Frontline Operations Platform

Where the MES approach is rigid, top-down, and all-or-nothing, the no-code deployment approach is flexible, bottoms-up, and gradual. Using a no-code platform, you can still implement data models or system architectures, but with a lot more flexibility.

You can start with a few apps and gradually add more use cases and introduce more complexity over time. You can scale the deployment at your own pace and see value in months, rather than years.

https://cdn.brandfolder.io/GDDASP4K/at/tfqknhr4fwn
A timeline of deploying apps to support operations

You can enable those who know the process best to pioneer the app development process by training them and enabling them with standardized apps. Some Enterprise Tulip customers build central libraries of best-practice apps for the entire organization while supporting independent app development and configuration. Process Engineers become Citizen Developers, creating intuitive apps for frontline workers that seamlessly present useful guidance and collect valuable data.

The flexibility of apps with the structure of governance gives companies the best of both worlds – localized problem-solving by domain experts empowered with no-code tools and global best practice and knowledge sharing.

Chapter 4: The Cost of Validation

Traditional MES

Validation requirements for an all-encompassing system implementation with a complex data structure make MES adoption a long process, requiring extensive IT support. Learning the process, standards, and system and validating those only extends adoption further, delaying the time-to-value of the solution.

“You have to validate all of the configurations and master data, all the processes that you put into the [MES] system. And that takes a long time; you need to learn the standard and learn the system as well. We’re talking, a good six to twelve months, if you’re really good at it.” – Gilad Langer, Manufacturing Practice Lead at Tulip

Hear more from Gilad Langer as he broke down this very topic during a recent panel session: The Future of eBR and eDHR.

Validating a traditional system in regulated industries and the life sciences is exhaustive. Any bug fix or upgrade comes at the cost of validating what can be a very complex IT system that touches every piece of your organization.

Frontline Operations Platform

Rather than needing to validate the full system with every update, you can validate Tulip’s platform and then check and validate each individual app before releasing it to production.

For GxP environments, Tulip has an auditable QMS and provides a fully validated platform release every 6 months.

In the context of validation, apps based on customer business needs are considered configuration and are in themselves the documentation of the MBR. You can access these version-controlled MBRs within Tulip. When they are executed, apps generate a fully compliant history record that is fully digital and linked to the MBR version.

https://cdn.brandfolder.io/GDDASP4K/at/wz2cvmmx5m2
Tulip’s Validation Approach

Chapter 5: The Benefits of Empowering Workers

Traditional MES

In a recent survey by Gartner, 59% of manufacturing industry respondents rated “Improving Employee Decision Making and Competency” as extremely important criteria for MES investment Justification. (Gartner)

Rigid MES systems with complicated procedures and extensive training required, support “employee decision making and competency” in a very limited way.

Frontline Operations Platform

With apps, you can build digital workflows that guide engineers and operators through tasks — making their jobs easier and improving their productivity. Process engineers can shift their time from building documents and spreadsheets to building apps that seamlessly inform and collect data from operators.

Chapter 6: The Cost of Maintenance and Updates

Traditional MES

Maintaining agility is becoming increasingly important across all industries. For agility, it is not only important to be able to rapidly update production, but the systems that support production as well.

MES solutions are typically monolithic with heavy reliance on 3rd-party integrators, and often require ticketing systems for any updates – large or small. Hiring support can be expensive in itself, but 3rd-party intervention is also costly in terms of time spent without utilizing the full potential of your system. If you want to update something (new equipment, machine, UI fix, etc.), it could take weeks. If you want to adjust the data structure or add a field, you might need to wait months for the team to include it in the new version of the MES.

Frontline Operations Platform

With a Frontline Operations platform, you can keep more system expertise in-house and significantly reduce release cycles. Depending on their permissions, an engineer can set up a new sensor and add it to the system in a single afternoon.

Additionally, faster, more frequent release cycles mean rapid innovation and ultimately a better solution. You could argue that an additional cost associated with monolithic MES systems lies in the lost opportunity for innovation.

Before Tulip, it wasn't practical to conduct in-depth analysis to optimize every process. Now we have real-time insights that let us optimize even low-volume production runs.

Quality Engineer, Electronics Contract Manufacturer

Chapter 7: Data Contextualization

With the rise of no-code IIoT-native platforms and digital transformation, comes a promise of gathering and collecting data and real-time visibility for actionable improvements. But can’t an MES system do that?

Just how does adding context to your data make it more valuable, and why do MES systems limit the potential in your information? Frontline Operations Platforms with no-code, IIoT and native analytics can bring your data to life and grant you flexibility, in ways that IT forward MES systems haven’t been able to achieve.

The Traditional MES Way

Some of the problems with data stored in an MES are fundamental to the way these systems exist today: MES are monolithic and require extensive support and expertise to implement. IT support is a necessity, and routine updates often require the same hands-on expertise from vendors. This leads to issues like:

Data Silos

Depending on how they’re implemented, MES systems can further build up “Data Silos.” Dated infrastructure leads to systems that can’t always communicate with each other, and data being stored by departments or functions. To pull information for a holistic view across the shop floor, a team may have to gather information across multiple systems, computers, databases and records. Inaccessible databases that require IT support put your data in a form of cold storage, making it difficult to access it on the fly.

Rigid Data Collection

Rigidity in MES systems often limits the means of data collection. Data must be correctly entered into your system, as the MES is configured. If your process differs from the MES’ then it can be quite costly to have the vendor change or adjust the software. Changing the color of a button can be a process that takes months of IT support, and requires tremendous resources. This makes it tricky to stay agile, and continuously improve. Essentially, MES locks down your processes and requires uniformity in your information.

Delayed Data Analysis

MES have limited built-in analytics capabilities and may require you to export data and manipulate it in external tools like Microsoft Excel to gain the insights you need. By the time you can create a dashboard, the data will be already out of sync with what is currently happening in your operation. Keeping dashboards up to date doesn’t add any value to your teams. With every change to your process, new data collection through this dated process will extend the time it takes to actually solve a problem and implement a change.

Data with no context

Context with data is important. Tracking machine downtime is a good first step at improving your operations, but the value comes from being able to detect the cause of downtime, and what factors are influencing it. MES can’t always provide that data, because they simply don’t have the means to capture it. Legacy systems are designed to intake and store records, like machine state changes, but usually do not have a way to store operators’ experiences and inputs through notes and images.

Frontline Operations Platform Advantage

Tulip's platform is designed to overcome some of the challenges that come with handling data in a monolithic MES system. Being able to add context to data across operations and access real-time analytics in the cloud makes it easy to utilize and leverage your data to its maximum potential.

Tulip Machine Terminal app

All your data, when you need it

The cloud-based nature of Frontline Operations Platforms provides an incredible advantage when it comes to storing, accessing, and manipulating data. Tulip makes it easy to pull data from sources outside of apps like:

  • ERP systems like SAP and Netsuite, SQL databases, and HTTP APIs

  • Networked and Legacy Machines

  • IIoT devices and sensors

  • Computer vision detection

  • Human data entries

It is easy to add a new data source into your apps, and connectors in the Tulip Library make it easy to be up and running in a matter of minutes. Machines can be connected and updated quickly as well, without the need for extensive custom code.

Being able to view and create analytics and dashboards makes it easy to see the real-time status of your operation, and watch improvements closely.

Centralizing data across apps and tables in a shared structure allows you to call upon important information upstream or down, and quickly see patterns and trends. The no-code advantage shines through built-in analytics, eliminating the need for complicated, additional business intelligence software.

Gaining context from human data with IIoT

Operators on the frontlines work closely with machines every day and often see valuable first-hand knowledge. While MES are designed for systems and machines, solutions based on no-code platforms can be designed for humans as well. Integrating IIoT into a no-code app platform allows you to record information from the operator’s actions to better understand what is happening in your operations. Smart tools and sensors can provide context to machine downtime and inefficiency in operations.

Tulip allows you to build guided workflow apps that make it easy for operators to add notes and images. This human data can be used to augment machine data and help an engineer quickly identify the root cause of a bottleneck.

Context can help engineers identify patterns, trends, and correlations. Instead of tracking machine-focused metrics, it becomes easy to monitor your whole process, creating a truly connected facility.

Chapter 8: The Upgrade Process

Upgrading is essential for keeping your systems functioning optimally, fixing bugs, and capturing value from new vendor-developed innovations, yet for some manufacturers, it takes months to get the updates they need.

Before we dive into the upgrade process, it’s important to differentiate between customization and configuration when comparing the MES approach to the new approach with Tulip’s no-code operations platform.

CustomizationConfiguration
Code changes that a vendor or integrator makes to a product to provide a more tailored solution for a customerHow a customer sets up the existing functionality to create a more tailored solution for their processes without touching the code

The Traditional MES Approach – Product Customization

The approach that traditional MES vendors take to provide tailored solutions to their customers is through product customizations via code changes. As we’ll see, customization is fine and great until the system needs to be updated.

Product Updates

With MES software (and most software products), you have the main product branch and then a product patch branch. The main product branch has major releases every 6 months to a year, usually with big new features and updates.

The product patch branch results from a mix of features and error corrections (between 10 and 450). When it comes time to update to the latest features available with the main product branch, a vendor will install a backport of error corrections for the customer on the branched version. This entails regression testing to make sure the updates don’t cause problems.

https://cdn.brandfolder.io/GDDASP4K/at/pcbt4b6k444
Typical MES product upgrades without customizations

In this scenario without customizations, you can see that things can get messy pretty quickly, but an MES vendor can deliver corrections fairly quickly in days or weeks.

Adding Customizations per Manufacturer

For each customer, a vendor will create a project instance copied from the product source code and invest 1,000s of hours on product adaptations (customizations) for a solution to meet the customer’s requirements. These customizations are made with hard-coded changes. Now the customer has a customized software version that needs to be validated and deployed.

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Typical MES product upgrades with customizations

Whenever a new product update is available, the vendor representative needs to provide a customized backport for the customer’s custom version of the product. Corrections take weeks or months to complete.

Adding Customizations per Manufacturing Site

To add even more complexity, a single manufacturer may actually have multiple sites that all require site-specific customization.

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MES product upgrades with site-specific customizations

Whenever a new product update is available, the vendor representative needs to provide a customized backport for each of the customer’s custom versions of the product. Corrections take one to two months to complete.

The Tulip Way – Platform Configuration

Tulip’s Frontline Operations Platform handles solution tailoring a little differently. As mentioned earlier, Tulip does not provide product customizations for each of its customers. Rather, Tulip’s no-code platform is configurable and you can update the interface, data structure, triggers, connections, etc. on your own — or with a little help from a Tulip or a Tulip partner. Tulip is also a cloud-native platform that can be deployed with AWS, Azure, or AWS GovCloud.

What this means from an upgrade standpoint is that platform updates are incredibly simple and fast. If your company prefers biweekly platform updates, you can see new features and bug fixes automatically. Tulip also offers long-term support releases 2-3 times a year for customers that prefer more control of when they upgrade. In each case, you can stay on the main platform branch and get the latest features and bug fixes without disrupting your configurations.

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Tulip platform updates

If you or any Tulip customers need a correction, Tulip can provide it with a point release within a couple of days. This update is available to any customer that wants it. And there is no risk to waiting, as the fixes get rolled up into the main platform branch for the next full release.

Tulip Simple Dynamic Work Instructions

Conclusion

While MES systems are extremely valuable to the success of an operation, Frontline Operations Platforms provide more value through data contextualization. Being able to unlock the true potential of your data speeds up innovations in your process, and lets you unlock complimentary use cases across every part of your shop floor in ways that are infeasible to scale to with an MES.

Ready to replace or expand your MES?

To get an in-depth analysis of how Tulip stacks up to traditional MES, get a customized demo with a member of our team!

Day in the Life Illustration