Manufacturing Execution System • January 19, 2021

MES & Lean Manufacturing: Friend or Foe?

Dan Miklovic

MES & Lean: Friend or Foe?

Lean manufacturing has a mixed relationship when it comes to technology.  Originalist Lean adherents resist full automation seeing it as removing the operator from the Lean process. When it comes to a Manufacturing Execution System (MES), staunch Lean originalists see MES as antithetical to Lean principles such as Kanban and Just-in-Time (JIT). Consequently, some have called into question the value of an MES. Just as with any technology, results can vary. Is an MES a friend or foe to a Lean strategy?

Some Lean Manufacturing Fundamentals

Even though Lean manufacturing has been around for more than 50 years there remain a lot of misconceptions as to what Lean is about.  Often it is perceived as either a cost-cutting, waste reduction, or Business Process Improvement (BPI) enabler. Another perception is that Lean is just a way to implement just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing. 

The heart of Lean manufacturing, however, should be focused on delivering value to the customer. It does so by employing tools and methodologies to maximize value creation and minimize non-value adding but required activities. Examples include complying with financial regulations, paying employees, or Environmental, Health & Safety (EH&S) activities. Lean strives to eliminate any non-value adding and not legally required activities.

Some of the Lean tools that can accomplish these three objectives are:

  • 5S: Work cell organization and operation methodology to eliminate waste from poorly organized, dirty workplaces, based on these five steps: 
    • Sort: Eliminate what is not needed
    • Set in Order: A place for everything and everything in its place.
    • Shine: Cleaning and inspection
    • Standardize: To enable doing it the same way every time
    • Sustain: Doing it the same way every time, with a continuous improvement mindset
  • Poka-yoke: Error proofing a process to prevent defects. Primary benefits include quality improvement and eliminating time wasted to inspect production processes.
  • Jidoka: Automation to a level that enables workers to operate faster while maintaining their ability to interrupt the process to prevent quality issues. Primary benefits include allowing labor to monitor multiple work cells lowering labor costs and higher quality.
  • Andon: Visual display of production status and the providing of alerts when intervention is needed. Primary benefits include quality improvement and less rework or scrap.
  • SMED: Single minute exchange of dies, focused on changeover time reduction. Primary benefits include customer responsiveness due to the ability to increase product mix and reduction of setup time, a form of waste.
  • Kanban: Form of work management based on a pull mechanism, driven by signals that indicate when a work cell is ready for more inputs.
  • Continuous Flow: Manufacturing is such a way that material flows through the process with minimal to no buffers. The primary benefit is the reduction of inventory, waiting time, and transport wastes.
  • Heijunka: Form of scheduling production that uses small batch sequencing to provide flexibility within a process. The primary benefits are reduced inventory and lead times.

Many other Lean tools and methodologies exist, most of which can be enhanced with a well-designed MES.

This article may be of interest, which points to how Covid-19 Has Changed Lean Manufacturing Practices, as an interview with Naveen Poonian, CEO at iBase-t

How an MES Enhances Lean

Looking at each of the above methodologies, an MES that is agile, adaptive, and designed with Lean as a possible operating model can greatly improve the value of the shift to Lean manufacturing:

  • 5S: An MES that can adapt easily will support and enforce the process modifications necessary as part of a 5S program.
  • Poka-yoke: By designing go/no-go elements into the manufacturing process and then using an MES to enforce the measurements, you can establish a robust poka-yoke methodology without building physical gates – in essence, you virtualize the poka-yoke.
  • Jidoka: An MES is a perfect way to foster the semi-automation Jidoka embodies by facilitating human interaction rather than eliminating it.
  • Andon: An MES enabled virtual display on all devices that contain real-time visibility of all production-related information is a powerful way to help drive higher performance, which can be personalized by operator or machine as needed. 
  • SMED: While the process engineering to reduce changeover-time is not MES dependent, by using visual guides, possibly even AR/VR, for setup, time schedules can be reduced. 
  • Kanban: Using an MES to automatically trigger pull-based material flow can eliminate paper and delays caused by lost documentation.
  • Continuous Flow: An MES can coordinate the production steps that have been designed to ensure process-like flow so there is less risk of surging or blockages.
  • Heijunka: An adaptive MES can accommodate a high volume of product variation, which is particularly important in industries like A&D that have multiple variants of the same product being manufactured simultaneously.

So, despite the perception that MES and Lean are sometimes incompatible, a well designed and agile MES, such as one built upon microservices architecture, can accelerate your Lean improvement. The vote is in – an MES is a friend of Lean manufacturing. 

Read more about the importance of real-time data to drive faster, better decision making with a manufacturing execution system.

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