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Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The return of custom built manufacturing software

Is it really happening? Are the new digital technologies making it attractive and maybe even necessary to develop custom manufacturing systems solutions? For years we have advocated that companies focus on their core business competencies and leave the software development to expert best in class software companies. There are many horror stories of companies that are stuck supporting custom built software that is running their critical operations, why build and spend millions maintaining in house developed systems?

With the emergence of new digital technologies I see companies once again opting to develop custom software to solve their manufacturing systems needs. Is it because it is the 4th industrial "revolution", or is this truly something to consider, does it bring value and if so how? I believe there are a number of forces at play that are causing this to happen.
  • Emerging digital technologies specifically cloud based SaaS solutions provide user friendly ways to solve some specific problems like analytics and integration with very quick ramp-up times. I.e. you don't need a lot software development skills.
  • There is a real business need to get the promised productivity gains from these digital technologies. In other words organization have allocated money and people to get things moving in their digital transformation
  • The new generation of workforce comes from the digital age (i.e. digital natives) and are used to in simple words, just download an app for that. They are confronted with what they see as antiquated software systems that are not really user friendly and their reaction is to find another app.
  • The new digital technologies in general are human centered - they are developed to solve (and support) what we as people do, where as traditional business software is developed to automate a process.
  • The current solution landscape of available digital technologies, in what we know of as the manufacturing system domain, is very fragmented and somewhat immature. Yes there are pieces of it specifically in the Cloud part that are further along but in general no.   
So, is this a case of history repeating itself? Will we see a resurgence of home grown solution that we will in a few years pay dearly to replace with available software form industry suppliers? I am not going to try and be a futurist but I think we can apply some logic to what the future can bring.  So in general, yes I think so - although it will be different (what an ambiguous answer). There will be some level of custom software being built but at the same time there are some forces at play that are different from what we have seen in the past, and these will make a big difference.

The rate of software development and how fast it is maturing is much greater that it was in the past, and the new technological landscape will consist of a network (or mashups) of different systems.
We will not have specific monolithic systems for each department or business function. The future digital factory will be supported by a network of Cloud and Fog (or Edge Computing) software components that will have been put together from the bottom up. The future manufacturing systems will develop and mature over time thru emergence rather than a top-down design and development process. Think about that - if this is true so much of our current approaches will not work (GAMP, ISA-95/88, etc.)!

So much for my prediction of the future, PS no AI used here 😉.