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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Customize or Compromise

I am currently involved in a global project to rollout a specific MES (Manufacutirng Execution System) to a host of sites. This is an immense undertaking and therefore we are spending some time pondering some of the things that we can do to ease the pain and more importantly learn as we go along. I think that I will have quite a few more posts on this topic as we progress; initially I wanted to share some thoughts about using a commercially available MES software product, sometimes also called COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) and the customizations that are always required.

The first topic is revolves around the question whether a COTS MES product can be productively used in a real world scenario only using the features that are available OOTB (Out-of-the-box). I believe that the answer is a resounding NO, but I may be wrong. It is obviously something that many practitioners are challenged with and therefore I think it makes a good discussion topic.

A COTS system will always be a compromise. The end customer wants his requirements satisfied based on his priorities. The vendor’s priorities, on the other hand, are driven by the need to pick the customer’s requirements that he knows the product can solve best – and then sometimes even persuade the customer that its best for him.

Such COTS MESs have a specific set of features that can be applied to a given scenario sometimes represented by a functional requirement. I like to call these "solution scenario" or "solution approaches" since sometimes a requirements is satisfied by a specific way to use a number of available features. This may be somewhat comparable to a software Design Pattern. Unlike a system that is a custom (or tailored) solution this presents some challenges.
  1. For specific scenarios there may exists one or more solution approaches using available OOTB features. This is the postive scenario - in such cases we are good to go.
  2. For specific scenarios the OOTB feature set may not provide a solution approach. In other words an OOB solution does not exist and hence a customization may be required. the question here becomes: "Can we live with out this?"
  3. For specific scenarios the OOTB feature set may be able to provide a solution approach but it is constrained or lacking. In such cases a decision has to be made to compromise or customize.
If you only encounter scenario #1 then there is no problem, however I have never seen this happen. Dealing with scenarios #2 and #3 can be summed up as "compromise or customize". What do you want to do?


Martin Daegling said...

Since I am rather familiar with the software package of one of the major COTS MES supplier, I fully agree with your statements. The Life Science world is so diverse that even the manufacturing operations for the same product family might vary within the same company. Well then, let's customise... Hold on for a minute. You may also ask: why in the world are the manufacturing operations not the same? I think it is often because potential MES customers have not made their homework before they introduce a MES on a global scale. A MES will not make a bad process better. So if the customer has not gone through initiatives like Lean or harmonising BPR, a COTS MES will probably have a more negative effect. As you said, it provides OOTB solution approaches, but they will definitely not be enough for "unprepared" pharma companies. These solution approaches may on the hand help as part of these initiatives. To some degree these solution approaches represent "best practice" solutions since some of the COTS MES supplier have been around for many years and have built up a sound customer base of global Life Science companies. So the first exercise for a pharma company should be to look inside before they look out for software solutions. Nevertheless I do agree that a COTS MES will never fulfill all the requirements 100% with OOTB functionality. If the customer does not want to compromise it often means customization, which costs. But here I would take a closer look at the COTS MES solution itself. Depending on the design concept you might have a possibility to solve at least some of the issues by a changed configuration. Almost every software comes with some default settings. If you want to change something you open the "Options" menu, set a or take away a few functionality flags, and the software works your way now. Some COTS MES migth have this capabilities built in or may open for it due to their software architecture (e.g.SOA). If configuration is not possible and the only option is customisation I would try to answer the following question: Is the software architecture truly modular so minor software changes change only a small number of modules? Or do we have a more monolithic structure where even a small change requires a lot of engineering hours and money? Here I see room for improvement for some of the COTS MES supplier, but a lot of these software packages will be revamped within the next couple of years, so things might change fot the better.

Rich Santoriello said...

I to am familiar with a software package of 1 of the major COTS MES suppliers and of course I also agree with Martin. However, I want to share my experiences with MES a bit... after being involved in 5 COTS MES implementations and 2 custom built and internally maintained MES implementations I will say this... The 2 custom built and maintained solutions gave us 100% of the functionality requested and we did it a lot cheaper than purchasing a major COTS MES. In 1 case we did it for approximately 450k cheaper and the other to date is even higher. BTW, that savings only includes the first year of software maintenance cost. The savings will be even higher if I include the cost of software maintenance over the life of the MES. Just my experience...

Gilad Langer said...

Thanks everybody from some great comments. I will follow up with some more posts and discussion on this topic.

Some food for thought. Martin the fundamental of manufacturing require constant change, hence regardless of how close to best practice you get your system it will always differ and change.

Rich there are a few more things to consider in custom vs COTS. I believe that you have to consider other not monetary aspects and also the total cost of ownership.

MIE Solutions said...

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ERP Software for Manufacturing

Eoin Morgan said...

As the market for solutions which go beyond delivering basic functionality expands in 2012 and beyond, the focus of many an offshore software development company is expected to shift towards using new technology to develop better User Interface (UI) and graphics for solutions, which were deployed earlier in the enterprise. These changes are unlikely to be very welcome to the Software Development company at this point.