How Low-Code Will Transform Manufacturing

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Written by: Bill Doerrfeld

Digital transformation is affecting all industries. At the same time, a lack of digital skills remains a top concern for US employers. With software developers few and far between, more and more companies are turning to low-code options to construct enterprise-grade software.

Nowhere is the need to automate backend processes and workflows more prominent than manufacturing — an industry with automation at its core. As a recent Mendix study found, employees here desire change too, as 87% of US manufacturing workers want to learn low-code application development. Introducing low-code within an industrial setting could result in leaner operations, quicker production, and reduced human error.

I recently met with Dina Durutlic, a Product Marketing Manager at Mendix who specializes in low-code within the manufacturing sector. She identifies a “slough of potential applications” for low-code to transform industrial operations. Below, we’ll pinpoint these use cases and see how low-code could transform the manufacturing industry at large.

Low-Code Use-Cases In Manufacturing

“The beauty around low-code is it’s very industry-agnostic,” said Durutlic. “Regardless of an organization’s background, there are often low-code use cases.” For example, goals like improving data access, creating forms, generating reports, or integrating with partners are universal requirements across sectors.

But, how exactly can low-code assist industrial manufacturing? Durutlic identified a few use cases for this particular sector:

  • Plant maintenance: Low-code could be used to aggregate time-series sensor data and monitor issues, providing a lens into a plant’s ongoing performance.
  • Part replacement: Manufacturing must maintain thousands of small apparatuses. Low-code could help identify broken parts and record statuses within a database.
  • Data integration: With pre-made integrations, low-code could help connect internal systems with an ERP, such as SAP. This could help locate parts within a directory and coordinate replacements.
  • Q&A optimizations: Low-code could help optimize existing workflows on the factory floor to digitize paper-based tasks prone to human error.

Low-Code Propels Industry 4.0

Factories are in the midst of significant change, involving increased usage of automation and AI. For example, engineers often leverage digital twins, which could be imbued with machine learning to refine predictive behaviors for computer-based models.

"Industry 4.0 is the latest industrial revolution that focuses on smart factory, autonomous systems, IoT, and AI/ML," says Durutlic. "The Digital Twin is part of this revolution - bridging the gap between physical and digital."

The low-code revolution is part of these disruptive, emerging technologies. Yet, many fear that AI and increased automation will further replace jobs in the manufacturing space. Durutlic, however, recommends readers quell any Skynet dystopian dreams — to her, low-code poses a little-to-no threat for existing application developers.

Low-code is more about complementing a worker’s capabilities, filling a developer talent gap, and democratizing access to application development potential. “People with boots on the ground can acquire additional skillsets,” she explains. “Low-code will never replace traditional development." Instead, it will more likely augment existing programming know-how, enabling developers to support new platforms, such as mobile, with ease.

Low-Code Encourages Industrial AppDev Diversity

The prevalence of advanced skillsets in the manufacturing field beckons the question: why can’t engineers code applications themselves? Well, just because industrial technologists are CAD modeling experts doesn’t mean they are proficient with software programming languages or DevOps. Low-code opens the doors for citizen developers to build workflows and deploy applications, regardless of technical background or coding acuity.

67% of manufacturing workers say they want to create a software app that would solve issues at work, found the Digital Illiteracy in the Factory: Providing Workers with Low-Code Tools survey. It’s no surprise that manufacturing workers want to expand their tools, as only 18% are happy with their current digital skillset. Low-code could empower engineering roles and non-technical workers to construct workflows to complement their industry expertise.

Low-code could also help democratize access to technical skillsets across gender. 88% of women said they are very interested in learning to low-code, found the report. And although many women are interested in manufacturing roles, the industry comprises only 27% women, reports Interesting Engineering

Durutlic sees low-code as a huge opportunity to promote diversity — especially within the manufacturing sector, which is historically male-dominated. “This is an exciting step toward more and more women becoming engaged with development and STEM in general,” she said.

Future of Industrial Low-Code

Software developers are in short supply. This global drought permeates all sectors, including manufacturing. And, as Durutlic estimates, “the software developer shortage won’t go away anytime soon.” Thus, a visual drag-and-drop alternative could help remedy this talent gap.

But, can you truly create functional, multi-platform, cloud-native applications without code? Durutlic acknowledges even she was at first skeptical around the low-code concept. But, she now sees robust low-code tools opening “limitless” possibilities. “What I find fascinating is that you can integrate various data sources into an application — that has the potential to remove silos,” she said.

For a real-world low-code example, Durutlic described how one worker with no prior software development experience developed an application to improve her company’s operational efficiency. By tracking data from wrist devices, she constructed a process to help warehouse employees perform their jobs and automate manual processes, thus reducing shipping errors.

Arming digital-savvy non-developers with the means to automate their workplace operations seems to be the way of the future. Looking to the future, Durutlic also predicts the next wave of low-code will be developing at the edge, supporting IoT, and integrating real-time data. “That’s the way of the future,” she said.

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