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by Jim Connett, on June 07, 2021

Is It Time For an MES Migration?

One of the most significant and impactful software investments your company will make is the manufacturing execution system (MES) application. The MES is the heartbeat of your facility. If the MES is running efficiently and effectively, you’re probably going to do well. If the MES is causing issues, the impact will be felt both internally (missed KPIs, monthly goals, and orders) and externally.

If you invested in an MES some 20 years ago, you are probably seeing now how the new demands and requirements of today’s manufacturing world can’t be addressed in a legacy MES. Consider that AI-driven, web-based interfaces were pretty much not even a thought in the minds of the MES developers in the 80s and 90s, even into the 2000s. Today, we have highly intelligent, web-based MES architectures which are readily available and provide a competitive advantage. Think about cloud-based MES environments; that concept was never imagined for the MES applications two decades ago. Yet today, a decentralized MES architecture is now available and allows for more cost-effective global growth.

Legacy MES applications may be failing to meet the needs of these new demands, and your IT group may be considering an MES migration to take advantage of newer technologies and capabilities. At some point, the decision to migrate (or upgrade) the MES is unavoidable. If you find yourself in that position today (or you sense that you’ll be there soon), then here are some points to ponder (in no particular order) on this exciting journey.

  • Breathe. Yes, the MES is the mission-critical heartbeat of your company. Yes, the project will have many side trails and unexpected issues. Yes, it’s going to be a lot of effort on top of your already overflowing plate of responsibilities. Yes, upgrading or migrating the MES is a high-risk project. But, remember, it’s just another project.
  • Buy. Unless you are in a niche manufacturing market with extremely complex business rules, there really is no reason to build and code your own MES. Yes, you may realize initial cost savings, but the costs and risks going forward will rapidly consume any realized benefits.
  • Research. 80% of the effort in painting a wall is in the preparation choosing the right paint, the right color, the right brush, masking off the floor and edges where you don’t want to paint, etc. Only 20% of the effort is in the actual act of painting. The percentages may be slightly different when applying this maxim to an MES migration project, but the concept is the same. So, take the time to do your research. Talk within your sphere of influence (outside your company). Take these colleagues from other companies to dinner and discuss the pros and cons of the MES they are using. Collect and document this real-world experience. Interview the salespeople trying to hock their MES wares. Then, interview them again to make sure their answers align. Don’t take “sure, we can do that” as the final answer! Ask for proof. The time and effort spent in this vetting process will yield benefits going forward.
  • Gather. Make a list of your priorities for today and in the future. Are you interested in mobile access? Maybe not today, but later? Then make sure the MES is (or can be made to be) mobile-friendly. Are you a Microsoft shop? Make sure the MES you’re considering is optimized for MSSQL. Favor open-source databases? Check the MES on that, too! Want ODS (online-data store)-type reporting capabilities separate from your production/live database? Then verify your database of choice can support live, ODS, and warehouse models. Want to run the MES in the cloud or as virtual machines? The list is endless and unique to every company considering an MES migration. Getting these answers will quickly narrow the field down to targeted and appropriate suitors.
  • Evaluate. Every MES has characteristics that make it more suitable for certain industries and manufacturing methods than others. This is where the experiences of similarly positioned colleagues in similar industries will be beneficial. Interested in an MES for pharmaceuticals? See what other pharmaceutical companies are using. Semiconductor? Make a quick phone call to the fab down the street to see what they are using!
  • Dream. You’re in the process of extracting the beating heart of your company and giving it a new heart! Form a “dream team” to create a wish list. You, as an IT professional, may think you know what is best for the company, but the end-user likely has different and oftentimes better ideas (we’ve seen this FAR too often). Create a forum to allow these ideas to come to light (this will also help with user acceptance in the future when the new MES is installed).
  • Adapt. The best laid (and best executed) plans cannot account for all situations you may face. Be bold in planning and realistic in expectations. Document the benefits and drawbacks of a migration in your buy-off documentation. Your superiors will appreciate your candor and, should something go sideways during implementation, you’ll be able to focus on resolving the issues rather than being concerned about over-promising and under-delivering.
  • Budget. MES migrations are an ongoing investment into the heart of your organization. After migration, plan for at least five years of maintenance and support from the MES company. This will give enough time for the application to “settle in” and offer ample opportunity for onsite support staff and IT engineering to learn the system, the required maintenance, and maybe the skills to perform modifications and upgrades as your needs change. This initial five-year investment will give your company a “security blanket” as you move to fully own the MES application in future years.
  • Care. Change is difficult. Change is disruptive. I’m guessing your current operators use your MES almost mindlessly  relying on muscle memory to pull up reports, execute transactions, and research material history (as examples). Bringing a new MES into the mix will likely cause uncertainty and anxiety. Recognize the human element in this change, and be prepared to respond with kindness and compassion.
If your company is seriously considering a migration, be sure to involve a systems integration partner early on that can advise on strategic end-to-end considerations. Executing a complex migration of a running system requires experience and skilled attention to ensure the running operations are not seriously impacted and that, upon completion, the factory is positioned to truly capitalize on the promised benefits of the new solution. Make no mistake about it – an MES migration is a significant project for any manufacturing company. However, good planning, good communication, and a good sense of humor will smooth over the rough edges and result in a solid investment for the next several years.

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