Is a Manufacturing Execution System better than an ERP?
February 11, 2019 | 6:00 pm CST
Manufacturing Execution Systems are the missing link between design corporate ERPs. Image courtesy WEB-CAB, Inc. 
Call them a very early adopter: WB Mfg.'s Cabinet Division began using a Manufacturing Execution System to optimize plant floor production way back in 2005, when it was known as Wisconsin Bench.
Nearly 15 years later, the company has expanded the use of its MES system. Now the majority of the nearly 5,000 parts processed daily in one workcell section of its 250,000 sq.ft. plant, move into and through production with no paper trail or human intervention in the process management - other than barcode printing and scanning.
WB Mfg.'s operation had been described variously as an example of Industry 4.0, an Automated Work Cell, or Batch 1 production. But the enabling technology does have a precise name: a Manufacturing Execution System, or MES for short. 
So what is an MES? In industries other than the wood products sector, the concept of the Manufacturing Execution System has been around since the 1990s. (There is even a Wikipedia page for MES, and in 1992 an association, MESA, was formed to promote the adoption of such systems.)
But in recent years, driven by labor shortages, and enabled by more automated machining systems, Manufacturing Execution Systems have been picked up by wood manufacturing firms. Examples range from smaller businesses like Muskoka Cabinets in Ottawa; or garage cabinetry firm Monkey Bar Storage Systems, in Rexburg, Idaho; to mammoth firms like American Woodmark, among hundreds of others.


Hexagon to launch wood manufacturing production software

Hexagon, parent of Cabinet Vision, launched a  Production Software business to integrate factory floors. 

Often mislabeled as an ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system, the Manufacturing Execution System has a much more distinct purpose: it is aimed specifically at integrating data that drives and manages plant floor manufacturing.

How a typical MES differs from ERP

As the name suggests, a Manufacturing Execution System concentrates its usefulness on production, serving as the link between the CAD/CAM design systems, and the delivery of information about work in progress and work completed to the ERP above it.

  • Unlike an ERP, the MES tracks all the individual components comprising a cabinetry or furniture project
  • an MES updates job status of individual parts (including outsourced hardware and components)
  • It also tracks cabinets and entire projects at each step along the way, through shipping

It is even possible to run an MES, and skip the ERP. Some managers feel they get more bang for the buck by concentrating data efforts in manufacturing instead of trying to write the entire business.

An MES will take its original directions from designs of projects done in CAD/CAM systems like Cabinet Vision or Microvellum. It will also read data dynamically from shop operations, such as from nested CNC component cutting and edgebanding. And it will track manual steps like the accumulation of a "kit" with all the cabinet components, or the dowling, gluing and hardware insertion stations - giving manual labor an entree into data-driven production.

How an MES is implemented will vary - with rolling carts, pass-through sorting walls between cells, or other systems altogether. MES usually track everything through bar code scanning, as well as live data contributed by automated equipment as it completes cuts and clamping on work in process. 

In the case of American Woodmark, as well as Muskoka Cabinets, the manufacturing system was developed internally, and it relies on RFID codes embedded into individual parts. At Monkey Bar Storage Systems, which operates two 32,000 sq.ft. plants, the MES application is called Production Coach, distributed and implemented in the U.S. by RSA. WB Mfg. uses 2020 Insight, which has been continuously developed and was relaunched at IWF 2018.

It is no wonder Manufacturing Execution Systems are finding favor with plant managers. While ERPs embrace the entire spectrum of a business - including accounting and sales - an MES just gets the work done. Because it integrates business and production companywide, an ERP can take six months to a year, or even longer, to fully implement. ERPs also tend to favor the demands and performance of business management, and adoption is frequently driven by the company finance department. Implementation of a Manufacturing Execution System is most often handled by the plant manager, perhaps working with his IT department and the system provider's team. 

Kent Barby, manager of WB Mfg. Cabinet Division at the screen display 20 20 Insight job status
Continuously delivering status reports back to the ERP, in a typical cabinetry application, a Manufacturing Execution System takes its marching orders from the CAD/CAM or production design and drafting systems. Big screens showing work in progress, work completed, and job status, are often mounted up high, so everyone on the floor knows how work is progressing. This can even serve as a motivating factor to the workforce, allowing them to be engaged real-time in attaining daily production goals - with instant reinforcement for success. 


Talkative automation at WF Mfg. Cabinet Division

Seamless integration of its tightly-knit work cell allows CNC operators to program multiple machines.

In the case of WB Mfg., the impetus for installation of the 2020 Insight application was a diversification from laminate wood tops and panel components used in commercial furniture, into casegoods for the commercial cabinetry market for hospitals and schools, much of it customized. "Over 40 percent of cabinets we made last year were custom," says Barby, with the various versions including specific colors or unique shelf placements in commercial cabinetry projects for hospitals or schools.  

Wisconsin Bench originated as a commercial furniture component manufacturer. 20 20 Insight was adopted largely to allow rapid entry of the different cabinet designs. The high-tech work cell was installed in Spring of 2016, and the application of the Insight program expanded dramatically in conjunction with a $1.6 million equipment investment.

WP Mfg.'s lean workcell begins at the Winstore automated material inventory system, also linked to 2020 Insight. Able to anticipate production flow, it “looks ahead” to select and transport the correct panel to a pair of two-axis labelers, which affix barcodes at the spots on the panel where the nested parts will emerge. Labeled panels are fed into a Rover B CNC router equipped with a 42-spindle drill head, or into a Weeke BHP CNC router with automatic tool changer - depending on the cuts required for the specific cabinet. 

Production at one of American Woodmark's nine manufacturing facilities. 
At the Stream edgebander, bar code readers positioned above the machine automatically scan the label, which contains all the part information, including the banding material – size, color, type – and the required machining operations, and relays the information to the edgebander’s controls. The machine determines if edgebanding is needed on one, two or more sides, for example, and will automatically offload the part or return it to the queue for further machining.
The technology integration resulted in an exponential increase – approximately 40 percent – on the throughput at the edgebander alone, Barby says. “My operator now spends almost no time at all on machine setup.”
Barby will travel to San Jose for the 2019 Executive Briefing Conference in San Jose in April, to provide a snapshot of the WB Mfg. application of 2020 Insight. He will be joined by Henry Nisiobincki of  American Woodwork, and Kris Nielson, CEO of Monkey Bar Storage Systems and the three will address the use of Manufacturing Execution Systems at their firms. 


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About the author
Bill Esler | ConfSenior Editor

Bill wrote for, FDMC and Closets & Organized Storage magazines. 

Bill's background includes more than 10 years in print manufacturing management, followed by more than 30 years in business reporting on industrial manufacturing in the forest products industries, including printing and packaging at American Printer (Features Editor) and Graphic Arts Monthly (Editor in Chief) magazines; and in secondary wood manufacturing for

Bill was deeply involved with the launches of the Woodworking Network Leadership Forum, and the 40 Under 40 Awards programs. He currently reports on technology and business trends and develops conference programs.

In addition to his work as a journalist, Bill supports efforts to expand and improve educational opportunities in the manufacturing sectors, including 10 years on the Print & Graphics Scholarship Foundation; six years with the U.S. WoodLinks; and currently on the Woodwork Career Alliance Education Committee. He is also supports the Greater West Town Training Partnership Woodworking Program, which has trained more than 950 adults for industrial wood manufacturing careers. 

Bill volunteers for Foinse Research Station, a biological field station staddling the border of Ireland and Northern Ireland, one of more than 200 members of the Organization of Biological Field Stations.