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Execution Systems: The Heart of Intelligent Manufacturing

Steadily evolving over two decades, the manufacturing execution system (MES) now plays a central role in achieving manufacturing efficiency and effectiveness. The MES also commands potentially valuable sources of information for strategic business applications that feed on enterprisewide intelligence.

The sidebar, "Major Manufacturing Systems," outlines systems shown in Figure 1. Together, the sidebar and Figure 1 closely match how most companies operate their manufacturing systems. The planning level is the realm of aggregated production planning decisions, including for most supply chain activities, such as planned/actual production and inventory quantities. IT usually implements and manages planning systems, which can range from a simple, single-plant MRP system to the most modern, ERP application. The standard view of these systems generally follows a broad perspective concerned with corporatewide macro issues, including financial planning, aggregate inventory data, human resources management, and customer relationship management (CRM). Planning systems are generally used to provide decision-support information or respond to managerial issues on an exception basis. The emphasis is on system standards, consistent data presentation, and data roll-up functions such as accounting and inventory.

Plant floor applications are very different. These operate in an OLTP world and focus on optimizing and accomplishing current operational requirements within minutes, seconds, or milliseconds. The execution level is far more granular, providing the real-time use of tools and systems to manage manufacturing as it's occurring, and then reporting actual results to the planning level. Organizations have typically implemented applications on a system-by-system basis in response to requirements defined by department managers, manufacturing engineers, or equipment/process vendors. These systems have highly varied applications that might include retrieving and applying a process on a machine tool to make a specific threaded hole from a stored part program; measuring and adjusting an oven temperature on a minute-by-minute basis; changing a machine load schedule because received materials didn't meet quality requirements; or turning on valves to deliver liquid material in response to the product recipe. Very detailed inventory information and/or specific variances from standard at each manufacturing operation are typical.

A major role of the execution system is to collect and collate data from the real-time processes for delivery to planning level systems, including ERP and CRM. As the idea of the intelligent enterprise has grown, so too has the focus on expanding the use of MES to provide supporting information.

The third level in Figure 1's general hierarchy is the control level, where device processes are accomplished. This level typically includes the most basic process events, such as turning on motors, measuring temperatures, or making test measurements. Most of these events don't require human intervention but are executed with software logic in the programmable logic controller (PLC) or supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) component.

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