An MES, or Manufacturing Execution System, is a specialized genre of manufacturing software used to control both engineering and production environments (also known as the line, shop floor, fab, factory, lab etc.) It is sometimes also referred to as Production Scheduling software since prioritization and resource management are important aspects of manufacturing.
At its core, an MES is a real-time system that provides direction and instruction to the shop floor and tracks all activity in the manufacturing environment, hence the "execution" moniker. The primary unit of track-and-trace is called Work In Process, or WIP (the widgets you're making), and is often times grouped into a logical and/or physical container called a Lot. A good MES will also track the usage and efficiency of industrial equipment and many auxiliary items such as consumable materials (e.g. chemicals, test wafers, lithography reticles) spare parts, and even employees. The MES should always be able to answer the questions of "Who, What, Where, When and How": "Who" performed this activity? "What" data was captured as part of this activity? "Where" did this activity occur, or on which equipment? "When" did this happen and how long did it take? "How" was the activity performed - which recipe was run or which procedure was followed?
An MES will also provide significant insight on factory performance by way of operational dashboards and KPI reports (Key Performance Indicators), the most common of which include yield, throughput and cycle time. These are often utilized as part of a lean manufacturing initiative designed to reduce waste, and therefore cost. The data being captured on the manufacturing line can be translated into actionable information and then brought to the surface so management has a clear picture of how things are running; pain points become clearer and inefficiencies can be improved. While every manufacturing line is different, the most important thing to remember is that the MES must be able to accurately model and capture the way your WIP physically flows through the process.
From a high-level business point of view, an MES can receive input from a planning group or Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) application, capture the production activities for those parts, and then provide granular and macroscopic views on the health of the factory. The performance data output by the MES can then be fed back to the planning group in order to scale at an appropriate rate. But Manufacturing Execution Systems are not just for mature processes, they are also invaluable during the R&D and ramp-up stages of a company. It all comes down to data integrity and visibility; how much time are you losing because engineers are looking at disparate data sources and have to search multiple excel files (or various paper travelers) for information?
It's also possible to integrate the MES a step further by way of equipment automation, sometimes referred to as Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCaDA), where the MES will communicate directly with the manufacturing equipment at the Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) level. While this is the "ultimate achievement" vision for high-volume manufacturing lines, it's often far too expensive to implement for most small to medium-sized businesses, hence the need for a flexible and comprehensive system that supports manual input as well as varying degrees of data collection integration.
At I-Track, we believe that a robust MES which brings true value to a small/midsize manufacturing company doesn't have to cost a fortune or take 6+ months to implement. This is why we developed our flexible ToolTrack MES Platform that delivers the ease-of-use and data visibility necessary to transform an inefficient shop floor into a world-class production environment, and why we can do it for roughly 10% of what other MES vendors charge.