Efficiently transporting goods via ship, rail and road depends on the use of standardized containers that can be loaded and unloaded on different modes of transport. These containers were developed to reduce the cost and time for goods to reach their destination, which had previously relied on multiple instances of loading, unloading and warehousing. The terminology, dimensions and ratings of these containers were defined back in the 1960s, but the concept has solved many of the challenges of developing and deploying modern manufacturing-execution systems (MES) across global enterprises.
Containerization of software is not a new concept, with the first instances appearing in the Unix chroot system in 1979. Software containers’ package code holds all the necessary elements for applications to run reliably in different environments. These containers are lightweight, flexible, portable and use a form of operating-system (OS) virtualization to provision the application with the subset of the OS required to run the code.
But why are they so important for modern MES solutions? Let’s explore…
An increasingly complex MES landscape
To understand why containerization is important for modern MES, let’s first look at issues faced by traditional MES architectures and how systems have evolved. MES have been used to support complex manufacturing environments—think medical devices, semiconductors and electronics—for more than40 years. Originally developed as a monolith application, these systems were usually installed once and rarely changed, except for maintenance patches. Furthermore, over the years, complementary applications would be appended to the MES to replace less-capable solutions.
The MES became a huge and complicated system, inherently integrated into operations and the risk of changing it became very high, especially in some regulated industries such as pharmaceutical or medical device manufacturing.
These factors stifled system innovation and companies that were historically averse to change were faced with a wider and wider technology gap. The differences between existing systems and newer versions became so big that upgrades became extremely difficult and daunting endeavors.
However, the success of MES solutions meant that they evolved over time, moving beyond physical manufacturing processes to incorporate business processes such as quality, engineering, maintenance, manufacturing logistics and R&D. As machines became more sophisticated, and the need to gather automated data as well as manual inputs increased, the MES increased in its connectivity and levels of automation. This was followed by analytics and optimization functions. Of course, this all required greater investment by MES providers, who looked to gain returns by broadening the manufacturing segments they covered. This made the systems even more complex, as they tried to meet the needs of different sectors.
The growth of MES functionality led to new challenges. Customers wanted to select the parts of the system they needed for their applications. Some wanted everything, but others had reduced needs in certain areas; they did not want to replace specialized systems, or simply wanted a lower investment level. To deal with this, the MES started to become more modular.
Additionally, MES providers were pressed for new or updated features, all of which required development, testing, validation and deployment. MES is an enterprise system, after all, and different manufacturing segments have different needs. Even within niche market areas, some vendors struggle to provide good coverage with ‘out of the box’ features that require only simple configuration. There is always a point where customization is needed and, while businesses should look at how much of their needs can be met just with configuration, ease of customization must also be considered.
The demands on a modern MES
MES needed to change in line with modern manufacturing methodologies, particularly with making deployment automatic, enabling upgrades to be embraced (not feared), and provide the flexibility, agility, reliability and scalability to meet varied and changing individual and multiple-site demands.
One of the first demands of a modern MES is its ability to run on different types of cloud, on-premises or hybrid environments. While the number of systems being installed in the cloud is increasing at pace, on-premises solutions will continue to exist, and some may want to split functions between cloud and on-prem. Systems need to provide this flexibility and the ability to adapt for those that may want to start with one typology but change to another later, whether because their needs have changed or their understanding of the required resources means they can make more-informed investment decisions.
Of course, a future-ready MES also needs to incorporate IIoT, edge solutions, and Industry 4.0 methodology. With increasing numbers of intelligent devices distributed throughout the shop floor, the amount of data the system needs to handle is also increasing at a huge rate. Storing this data in the cloud, especially if it is not needed for analysis, can make costs prohibitive and increased edge processing may make more sense. However, simple edge devices may be more vulnerable to security risks and require frequent updates, so the MES deployment solution needs to consider different use cases for deploying workflows, controllers, and interfaces into lower point solutions.
Ultimately, the complexity of a modern MES, the flexibility and scalability it needs to offer, and the agility to embrace rather than stifle innovation require a new approach to system design: containerization.
Why containerization is so important
Containerization of MES functions means the system can be adapted more efficiently. Changes can be tested before they are integrated. Containers also enable easier customization, enabling individual pieces of the application to be modified, tested, and integrated without disruption to the main system.
The overall complexity of MES installations requires unified management of deployments with access to a centralized repository of containerized packages in the cloud. The simplicity that containers deliver will then mean the right packages can be selected and deployed with just a click of a button. For on-prem deployments, a local agent is required to open a secure connection for remote installations. Beyond this, continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD) tools, technologies and practices can automate and monitor the full life-cycle of MES applications to ensure changes are delivered quickly and reliably.
The increasingly complex and broadening application of an MES requires new strategies to ensure that innovations and the latest technologies can be fully embraced. The solution needs to be readily deployable, with appropriate version-controls and reliability, completely scalable across multiple sites, and able to run on different technologies.
By using containers, MES providers can deliver all of this and more.
The flexibility offered by a containerized MES means businesses can upgrade more easily, have a pathway to integrate Industry 4.0 technology and other innovations, and can bring together the power of data from global sites to ensure that efficiencies, best practices, and strategies are optimized. Whether in the cloud, on-premises, or a hybrid solution, users can be assured the system can grow and adapt to their needs with controlled deployment at the click of a button.
Yes, a modern MES solution is complex, but a system built from the ground up using containers to simplify deployment and enhance reliability means it is a system to be embraced for the future of high-end manufacturing businesses.
By Francisco Almada Lobo, chief executive officer and co-founder of Critical Manufacturing