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Manufacturers around the world are embarking on digital transformation strategies to make the most of the interconnectivity and smart automation technologies that underpin Industry 4.0.

For example, private 5G networks deliver new levels of speed and precision to supercharge asset tracking, system monitoring and real-time schedule and process optimization. This is achieved through location and event data and other telemetry that flow from a range of sensors and factory systems.

Meanwhile, manufacturing execution systems (MESs) are delivering on the promise of a “paperless factory” by automating and streamlining factory workflows while improving productivity.

Traditional paper-based processes, which are typically time- and resource-intensive and nonstandardized, have become unsustainable in a manufacturing ecosystem grappling with producing quality products at competitive costs and with demanding timelines.

So, manufacturers want to digitalize their manufacturing processes and operations with solutions that perform at least three essential functions: automated manufacturing execution, digital process planning and digital work instructions.

MESs assist in the automation, digitalization, visualization and reporting of shop floor processes. They can improve production control and quality, reduce waste, make employees more efficient and productive, and cut response times – especially when combined with industrial IoT solutions that enable predictive machine maintenance, quality analytics and more.

In doing so, they act as a bridge between enterprise resource planning systems, which focus on overall business operations, and plant floor systems handling the manufacturing operations.

Three core functions of manufacturing execution systems

  1. Automated manufacturing execution: The MES is the central nervous system of a paperless operation. It executes and monitors all work in progress on the shop floor and provides real-time visibility of production activities. It also tracks and documents the transformation of raw materials into finished goods.
  2. Digital process planning: The MES ensures that shop floor instructions are updated to match engineering changes. So, the result is consistency across production lines, as everyone in the organization is designing and producing based on the same information.
  3. Digital work instructions: All plant workers have the latest work instructions – such as engineering drawings, photographs, videos or any other documentation – because these are distributed instantly to every workstation. The MES can also verify that the instructions have been received and enforced.

How does this help manufacturers?

  • Because an MES automates the real-time execution, monitoring and validation of manufacturing processes, it reduces the scope for human error and raises operational efficiency.
  • It supports high-demand, real-time data acquisition, improvements in machine operations and better process visibility.
  • It becomes easier for manufacturers to integrate large volumes of data between different production plants.
  • MESs can generate comprehensive analytics on a range of production metrics, which can help manufacturers streamline production and reduce operational costs. They gain increased control over production and can respond in real time to changes during production to avoid compliance issues.
  • They can also effectively manage engineering change orders across the value chain, with automated change-management workflows that include all affected parties such as suppliers, warehouses and plants.
  • An MES can raise employee or plant productivity by identifying opportunities based on the tracking of key business performance indicators.
  • These systems help improve production quality as they capture data that facilitates adherence to quality standards. There is less of a need for scrapping or reworking, which reduces the potential for recalls or other downstream problems.
  • An MES supports the retention of institutional knowledge because it is a single digital source that documents a manufacturer’s collective knowledge and experience.
  • It contributes to good employee experience. Its reporting on employee accountability can be used to motivate employees, identify training needs and reward performance, and it can help attract a next generation of workers that expects a digital work experience.

Making smartphone production smarter

As an example, let’s use a smartphone manufacturer that wants to make its production more efficient with fewer manufacturing errors.

The MES will collect data from machines, sensors and operators to provide visibility into the status of production orders, workstations and any delays. Managers can then quickly take corrective actions to identify inefficiencies such as production bottlenecks and find opportunities for improvement.

The system may also include quality management features, such as guiding operators through quality inspections at critical stages of the smartphone production process and triggering alerts as soon as defects are found.

Furthermore, it can help ensure that the right materials are available at the right time by managing inventory levels and material consumption in real time and integrating with the manufacturer’s enterprise resource planning system to keep inventory records up to date.

The MES can also assist with workforce management by assigning tasks to operators based on their skills and availability and then guiding them through the relevant production processes. This reduces the scope for human error while tracking the operators’ performance to help managers identify training needs.

Avoid the complexity with expert help

The benefits are clear, but integrating an MES into an already complicated manufacturing environment can be a challenge. The system needs to be connected in the most efficient way possible to a variety of data sources and integrate seamlessly with other business systems.

At NTT, we bring together network and connectivity technologies like private 5G, edge and cloud computing to create an integrated technology stack that supports digital solutions such as MESs for manufacturers.

We follow a consulting-led, co-innovation approach in partnering with our clients to design and implement these solutions.