Using Software to Integrate MES and ERP Systems

Oct 15, 2008

Manufacturing execution systems (MES) define and control production processes within the pharmaceutical industry by automatically checking equipment and materials to ensure that a manufacturing process yields dosage forms that are within specifications. Integrating MES with enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems can bring companies greater control over production than before and make manufacturing processes more flexible.

Integrating these systems is challenging, however. The project takes time to complete and often requires software customization and programming skills. In recent years, vendors have introduced software applications that help users integrate or create interfaces between their MES and ERP systems. Equipment and Processing Report (EPR) talked to Alison Smith, research director at AMR Research (Boston), about some of these applications.

EPR: What software applications could help a company integrate its MES and ERP systems?

Smith: Clients have a host of options. First, MES providers have been dealing with the ERP integration issue for years and most have prepackaged interfaces to popular ERP systems already available. Then there’s an entire class of applications called enterprise application integration (EAI) tools. Clients may choose to construct transactional integration using an EAI tool such as Microsoft’s “BizTalk” server, Tibco Software’s solutions, or IBM’s “WebSphere” software. In some cases, MES applications embed EAI software. Microsoft’s BizTalk server used to be the EAI of choice, given that most MES are built on the Microsoft platform. Clients can also choose to purchase the EAI application separately and use it for more than just their MES–ERP integration. In any case, EAI tools are basically translators that map transactions from one system into transactions that can be consumed by the other system and vice versa.

EPR: Are EAI tools sufficient to achieve integration?

Smith: From a technology perspective, yes. That said, it’s absolutely necessary for the architect to understand the interaction between business processes that’s being executed via the integration. In other words, you can get two systems to talk to one another, but without the business-process mapping, it’s just so much gibberish.

EPR: Are any integration tools specific to a given ERP system?

Smith: SAP’s “Manufacturing Integration and Intelligence” (MII) tool is specific to SAP’s ERP, which is the most common ERP system in the life-science industry. MII is attractive in that it helps automate the process of building (and populating) SAP transactions. With MII, you can essentially create business logic and rules (using a combination of configuration tools that MII offers and then by writing additional HTML code as needed) that specify which data elements from shop-floor sources should be used to populate which transactions. One of the features that MII offers, which greatly helps this process along, is the applications’ ability to browse what’s called the “name space” of all of the networked data sources (including SAP’s various databases and transaction services) that can be accessed. Once you’ve got that universe of sources mapped out, you can create templates (in MII) for gathering the data, as well as creating rules to put the data into transactions. The only downside of this is that MII is essentially an HTML code generator. Users who want to get into complex business rules and logic need HTML competencies.

EPR: SAP says that Merck, Wyeth, Roche, and Novartis all use MII to integrate their MES and ERP systems. Do other applications besides EAI tools facilitate integration?

Smith: Yes, a class of tools we call enterprise manufacturing intelligence (EMI) applications, and we typically find them in environments where they overlay MES applications or provide MES-like visibility without the execution-management piece. EMI’s primary function is to give users very broad, role-based visibility into disparate shop-floor sources of data, but even more, to use that raw data to create intelligence about production performance. They’re usually very strong at data aggregation (gathering data from various sources including historians, programmable logic controls, and operational data stores), analytics, and visualization, but can also write data sets to shared networked databases where they can be picked up by SAP, business-intelligence tools, or any other application that can access the shared space. Understand though, that this is a one-way street where the application writes data to SAP—it’s a monologue, not a conversation. Pharmaceutical manufacturers should look specifically at Aegis Analytical’s “Discoverant” offering, or as another alternative, Incuity’s (now part of Rockwell) “IncuityEMI” application.

For more on this topic, see Pharmaceutical Technology's October 2008 cover story, Putting Together the Pieces.