Manufacturing execution systems are gaining momentum in the food industry, but some formidable hurdles still need to be cleared

The food industry is renewing its interest in manufacturing execution systems (MES) as a result of new standards governing their performance and new priorities and practices on the plant floor.

Bill McCarthy, manager of industry solutions for supplier Rockwell Automation, believes MES is poised for a breakthrough in the food industry, a view shared by other industry watchers. "We're getting more calls from food users about MES, while ERP calls are quieting," observes Kara Romanow, senior analyst with Boston-based AMR Research, Inc. According to supplier CIMNET, Inc., Robesonia, Pa., a spurt in MES interest last year translated into a 200 percent increase in company sales.

McCarthy isn't surprised. He notes that larger food companies require more efficient plants as they reach out globally and broaden their portfolios. Companies are also gravitating to made-to-order products, meaning shorter runs, quicker changeovers and "better management of recipes with an MES-type product," says CIMNET marketing director Ian Stone. The push to connect plant floor systems to company business systems is also a factor. "MES provides enterprise resource planning systems (ERP) with a window into the factory," according to Coleman Easterly, director of sales support with Green Bay, Wis.-based Mountain Systems, Inc.

As Intellution, Inc., Foxborough, Mass, describes it: "The need to share production data throughout the enterprise becomes critical."

Many Definitions

Of course, it also helps that the definition of MES is becoming clearer to food industry purchasers. The new ANSI standard SP95 identifies 11 MES functionalities agreed upon by vendors, consultants, and users, around which MES schemes are built. Functions include data acquisition/collection, process management, quality management, maintenance management, performance analysis, document control, product tracking and genealogy, and scheduling.

But ANSI SP95 still vies with other definitions, reflecting MES's different characteristics and capabilities, depending on the vendor. MESA International defines MES as "guiding, initiating, responding to, and reporting on plant activities as they occur."

SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition), HMI (human-machine interface), and process and batch control system ("toolkit") vendors define MES at the next level. "MES typically has been implemented using a toolkit approach," says AMR's Romanow, "but it needs lots of programming and time by expensive consultants to implement."

At still another level, Mountain Systems, specializing in food MES, offers a packaged, modular, configurable MES, Proficy for Manufacturing, which installs quickly, with minimal costly programming. Making a similar claim, CIMNET offers its INFOLINK MES based on the ISA S88 batch control system, allowing food companies to manage their recipes under the S88 model. INFOLINK allows a plant to integrate MES with its existing PLCs without redesigning its controls. "Our MES is compatible with any vendor's control system," Stone says.

The definition of MES also varies according to job function within the enterprise. For plant-floor personnel, the term could mean any application that helps perform a job more effectively. For business-level users, it may refer to applications that translate plant floor data into useable and understandable business information.

Hurdles to wider adoption

Some food companies have tried to build their own MES in-house, but implementation is usually piecemeal ? involving, say, only a single machine or part of the plant -- as a result of small engineering and manufacturing budgets. Stone says these departments become "too busy to give the system the attention it needs, and it slowly dies. Eventually you have to buy a proper MES. The real value is when the system manages the entire factory."

Another reason MES falls short of its potential stems from the difficulty in integrating it with a company's larger ERP business system. "How do I get my batch management module to talk to my ERP's order management module?" asks Sean Robinson of ASECO Integrated Systems, Oakville, Ontario, an MES supplier.

Attempting to integrate with ERP has laid the path for MES failures. One doesn't just simply plug the MES into the ERP system. What's needed is a middle layer database that collates the MES data for each job, material, shift or what have you into records the ERP understands.

For example, Intellution, Inc.'s iHistorian collects sub-second data from every aspect of the production process -- and from any HMI/SCADA application -- and transforms it into business-enhancing information. For instance, operators can identify and eliminate causes of unscheduled downtime and finding hidden inefficiencies. Intellution also plans to release infoAgent, which will provide a web environment where business users can view, analyze and trend reports from the iHistorian.

Mountain Systems' Proficy summarizes detail from the process historian and transforms it into information such as compliance to specifications, recipes, cost guidelines, schedules and environmental constraints.

Providing another means of connecting MES to ERP, the RSBizware MES suite from Rockwell Software links one module at a time via its RSSql. Here, Rockwell's pre-designed data model and analysis tools of RSSql translate information in a plant's SCADA package to an information warehouse or database, which then feeds it to a module in ERP. McCarthy gives an example: "We take the ERP level scheduling module and get it granular to translate into the batch execution engine on the shop floor. Then we'll do the same for the materials tracking module, so that it reports to the ERP scheduling module the materials consumed, the out-of-variance materials, and similar information."

ASECO Integrated Systems also builds links between pieces of the MES and ERP systems, allowing a plant's batch management system, for example, to talk to the ERP's order management module. "Bit by bit you establish links, and one day you've built an MES infrastructure," says Robinson. This is the basis of ASECO's Food Factory MES, which the company configures with Intellution's Intrack toolkit.

The future

Expanding the scope of MES, CIMNET adds packaging line machine management to its INFOLINK product. Stone says MES is needed for packaging lines to keep pace with today's multiple packaging changeovers, and to integrate with the ERP business system. Rockwell Software also includes a packaging management module in its RSBizware MES suite.

Looking toward the future, MES will play a larger role in supporting FDA compliance. For example, CIMNET's INFOLINK supports electronic signatures and certification for FDA reporting, and includes a procedure manager for quality and HACCP testing. Rockwell's RSBizware also addresses HACCP as a functional area. Intellution's iWorkInstruction enables operators to electronically sign, adhering to Current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) regulations.

As Robinson notes, food companies are learning that MES translates to hard dollars through better use of raw materials; improved work-in-progress inventory; better matching of demand to capacity; reduced inventory costs related to spoilage; and better detection of production and quality problems. "But it's a slow, steady education process," he adds.

Concludes McCarthy: "Food industry folks are figuring out that this stuff is manageable and doable; it is gaining long-term support."