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Beyond the MES: Crawl. Walk. Run. (Part 1/2)

The MES provides a critical foundation for the semiconductor factory as needs change over time.

Part 1: Crawl. Walk. Run.

Factories are evolving beasts. As factories evolve over time, their needs change. The MES, as the foundational factory system, must be able to grow with the factory to provide new capabilities as the factory needs them.

In Part 1 of this multi-part series, we’ll take a look at how factories commonly evolve, and at how the MES can evolve to provide an integrated manufacturing system.


The Manufacturing Execution System, or MES, is the operational backbone of many factories. But if you get 10 people together in a room and ask what an MES is, you’ll get 10 different answers. Yes, typically everyone agrees that you define process flows in the MES, and you track lots in the MES.

But this is where disagreement begins. What else is in the MES? It’d be great to have a system that helps manage and maintain equipment. And we’d want to have some way to track process quality during manufacturing, perhaps a statistical process control system.

Maybe we’d want something to coordinate the physical movement of product throughout the factory, like an automated material control system. And, of course, we’d want some kind of reporting system that would allow us to see what’s happening in the factory and do some analytics on all the data the MES generates. Ultimately, the source of disagreement about what should be in an MES is about what capabilities are needed in an MES, because needs vary for each factory.

If you’re in a small factory where product is manually moved from process to process, you might reasonably think, why would I need an automated material control system in my MES? But the needs of a large, highly automated factory would be completely different. There you might think, I absolutely need an automated material control system, and I want it powered by artificial intelligence algorithms, backed by a comprehensive machine learning model based on years of real-world training data. Certainly, these are factories with very different needs, but this doesn’t help us determine the capabilities that should be in an MES.

As you might expect, each stage in a factory’s life requires more capabilities within the MES to meet the increasing demands of manufacturing. There’s a familiar way to think about a factory’s evolving needs. Crawl, walk, run.

Crawl is the new factory. Perhaps it’s a small factory that’s just starting up, or perhaps it’s a brand new, multi-billion dollar high-tech greenfield factory. In the crawl stage, things are just beginning to come together.

The building is largely complete, the support systems and utilities are mostly turned on, the equipment is generally installed, the staff is beginning to come on board, but production hasn’t started yet. This is a factory that has modest needs. MES? Yes, please.

AI-powered systems to optimize production? Thanks, but no, not just yet. We need to get a basic process up and running first. Walk is the factory that’s been around for a while.

The building and support systems are in place, processes are well-defined in the MES, tools are qualified and running production, the staff is working as a team, and the factory is shipping finished product to its customers. This is a factory that has the basics down and is looking for new capabilities to improve yield, cycle time, and other factory performance metrics. MES? Yeah, been there, done that.

SPC system to monitor process quality? Of course. Tool automation to ensure proper processing? Certainly. Reporting systems to help keep production moving? Definitely.

Run is the factory that’s working to squeeze out every last bit of efficiency possible and looking for advanced capabilities in their MES to support this. These factories have mature operations and high capital equipment costs and commonly have 24 by 7 production to maximize utilization of their expensive assets. Their goal is to maximize efficiency to drive high volume at high yields and reduce the unit cost of their products.

MES? Yes. And? Augmented by lots of reporting, analytics, and real-time notifications. Tool automation? Absolutely. Controlling every tool and automating process recipe download and tool data collection as well. Automated product transport? Yes, of course. Throughout the entire process flow to ensure product is ready to go when tools are ready to process.

So what’s left? What other capabilities are needed to reach the holy grail of the lights-out factory? In a word, intelligence. In part two, we’ll extend our crawl, walk, run metaphor to include one more item. Fly.

About the Author

Picture of Dan Meier, Director of MES Strategy
Dan Meier, Director of MES Strategy
Dan is a seasoned manufacturing professional with nearly 30 years of operational and management experience. He has an extensive background in manufacturing optimization, quality systems, analytics, financial modeling, factory automation, and manufacturing software systems. Dan earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from The Juilliard School, as well as a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering and a Master of Business Administration from the University of New Mexico.