MES to manage extreme vertical integration

Features - Cover Story

Moving from paper-based processes to manufacturing execution systems (MES) is necessary to drive efficiency and quality into value chains and for businesses to stay relevant.

February 25, 2022

Ultradent’s plant incorporates several in-house manufacturing departments.

Manufacturers of sophisticated and fast-changing products need to move from paper-based processes to an intelligent manufacturing execution system (MES) to drive efficiency and quality into value chains. The first challenge in implementing an MES is aligning with long-range strategic objectives and key results. There shouldn’t be doubt about the key benefits an MES delivers to manufacturing, how the project will be run, or how success will be measured. Challenge number two is deciding on a sustainable project approach and methodology that allows for quick wins, followed by continuous improvement, and rapid scaling in the future. The third challenge is educating key stakeholders and deciding which low-risk manufacturing processes might be geared to a paper-on-glass implementation and which processes require a fully integrated MES implementation.

Once implementation is aligned to objectives and key results, project methodology and MES risk-based approach are known. A detailed scope and pilot project planning defines a pilot model of an end-to-end value stream with significant volume, process characteristics, and product variety. This will demonstrate the potential of the MES to the wider business. The pilot should include the manufacturing model, information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) integrations, and a validation process.

A dedicated team is essential to a successful MES pilot and to the subsequent enterprise-wide roll-out. Plan to invest heavily in team education and training during the pilot phase.

MES ensures all plant activities are visible, managed, and measured. Companies managing extreme vertical integration have complex and varied manufacturing operations, where a product of one operation, work cell, or department is a component to the next.

Case study: Ultradent Products

Based in South Jordan, Utah, Ultradent Products delivers products used by dentists in more than 120 countries. Their plant incorporates several in-house manufacturing departments, including chemistry formulation, weighing, dispensing, primary package filling, secondary packaging, injection molding, laboratory, CNC machining, assembly, and printing. Its production lines are high volume/low mix and low volume/high mix. Ultradent also creates specialty and customized products that have a limited shelf life. Traceability, genealogy, and first expired first out (FEFO) material handling are crucial to manufacturing operations.

After 40 years of business using paper-based systems, Ultradent moved to an MES and fully electronic batch records. To narrow down potential suppliers, it started by looking at companies with experience in the medical sector. It looked for functional fit, configurability, extensibility, and the ability to customize. The complexity of manufacturing also required a system with a model-centric approach to enable integration with a variety of other systems on site. With highly capable IT and engineering teams in house, it was further looking for a partner who would also act as a systems integrator and provide Ultradent with greater visibility and input into the roadmap for the MES.

“Finding the right partner was crucial for us. We have excellent in-house capabilities and knew we would want and need to customize the MES,” says Craig Pinegar, director of manufacturing IT at Ultradent. “We selected Critical Manufacturing after a comprehensive review of systems available and a great deal of research into what MES can do.”

Project selection was the first step for the team. Ultradent wanted a minimal viable product to cover the end-to-end value stream of a product line representative of at least half of the business. The next step was detailed project planning, considering IT and OT integrations to support work order management, material management, labelling, optical verification, and scale integration. The factory and processes were modelled in the MES with a focus on manufacturing execution, data collection, and exception management.

Ultradent Products’ headquarters in South Jordan, Utah.

Detailed vertical integration

Ultradent worked in close partnership with Critical Manufacturing and decided product lifecycle management (PLM) functions and document management would remain in PLM while planning, scheduling, inventory, and cost management would remain in the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. The MES needed to synchronize with the PLM, ERP, labelling, and more than 30 custom services using representational state transfer application programming interfaces (REST APIs) and JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) messaging handled by middleware and message queuing. For Level 2 integration, (per ISA-95 standard, the automation layer) drivers were configured in the MES to communicate with inter-process communications (IPCs), programmable logic controllers (PLCs), and other instrumentation using Open Platform Communications United Architecture (OPC-UA).

“After one year, we reached our first milestone with the minimal viable product pilot line up and running and gathering data we could have only dreamed about,” Pinegar says. “Our second milestone was a minimal scalable product. Robust change management is the next big challenge ahead.”

One of Ultradent’s primary goals was converting paper process steps and data collection points to electronic in the MES. The change management workload and complexity are critical drivers for the MES.

“Without great change management capability within the MES, managing changes to the factory product and process model can be both time-consuming and error-prone,” Pinegar says. “We are currently working closely with Critical Manufacturing to design and implement enhancements to facilitate high volume change management along with other improvements in areas such as weighing, dispensing, downloading, and filling.”

A shared development, vision

Ultradent and Critical Manufacturing have development teams facilitating innovation by building a joint development operations pipeline, merging code from both parties into deployable packages that can be validated together.

“We wanted a partner, not a supplier, and that is very much what we have with Critical Manufacturing,” Pinegar explains. “Our MES roadmap looks about three years ahead and we have made a big change in how we’ll run this project by switching from a waterfall to agile methodology. For this to succeed, it’s vital we take care of people and invest in them. Success lies in ongoing education and investment in all stakeholders at every level. We had never integrated IT and OT before, and we’re learning from each other every day. But gradually, MES is becoming the common language.”

“The pilot line looks great, and we are excited about the possibilities for the future. Critical Manufacturing has proved itself as an invaluable and adaptable partner and its MES gives us the flexibility we need to incorporate our own modules. Executives have seen the potential and are asking what it would take to roll out the MES everywhere in half the time,” Pinegar concludes.

Critical Manufacturing:
Ultradent Products Inc.: