House of Cards


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As a kid, it was great to convert something that was 2D to make something 3D, the classic house of cards, an interesting but unsustainable art form. It is never as simple as it may seem to put things together. With challenges like Industry 4.0 turning the manufacturing world upside down, in a good way I might add, we see solutions that are being quite brutally put together, through acquisition or partnership, which are expected to be perceived as being the solutions of tomorrow. Our younger selves know exactly what will happen.

To many, software is seen as being something very flexible indeed. A few small changes or tweaks, and an app is suddenly different, capable of doing something that it was previously unable to do, adding more value. Developing software has to be so much easier than creating physical hardware, with many discrete pieces that need to be assembled to make a product, that is timely to the market, useful and able to fulfill its life expectancy. We all know how hard that can be. There are two main schools of thought in the industry about life-cycles of software platforms, and it is important to understand the difference.

The first school of thought is the "old-school", which still represents most software today. Anyone, armed with the ability to develop software, can easily create an app which can go on to sell with billions of downloads. Most don’t however. The idea behind the software is the critical piece for the success of any  software endeavor. Pretty much every software development team will set out with such a singular and focused goal in mind, an idea of how their software will "change the world" with respect to their targeted audience. This is typical of commercial solutions in manufacturing as well as "home-grown" systems.

A particular need from production or engineering can be satisfied with a relatively simple computer system. There often can be little to criticize in these systems. They are efficient, stable, and do the intended job well. Many examples of this type of software exist in most manufacturing plants today, from the most humble of in-house engineering solutions, to the most popular ERP solutions.

This is however where the fun stops. There always comes a time when new requirements come along and that upsets everything. In our case, it is Industry 4.0. For example, suddenly our ERP system needs to talk to the machines; our production line management tools need to listen to quality feedback; planning systems need to understand the intricacies of surface mount automation; material kitting software needs to support level 4 "exact" traceability and just-in-time materials. Machines need to have data passed between them. Old-school "point solutions" are stressed at this point. True, it is possible to develop additional software which can be integrated into the original system, or even try to integrate two systems or technologies together in a partnership to achieve the desired goal. The issue is however that at least one of the pieces being put together was never designed to work with the new piece that is being attached.

This is a problem. Imagine at Daytona where they want a car to go twice as fast, and someone suggests welding two cars together. Two engines, twice the power, right? The marketing people go wild, "How flexible this integrated car is with 'four wheel steering', eight-wheel drive, with built-in redundancy and resilience? We should take this idea to Ford!" (the other one).

Sounds ridiculous, but this is the way the software industry works for many, bolting together solutions as if they were simple physical entities, which becomes in reality a very poor compromise. From an engineering science perspective, patching a solution together is fundamentally a poor way to go about creating a solution to anything, and software is no exception. Who has the ability to see through these compromised solutions, when the complexity is hidden under the software hood?

The second school of thought. Evolution is not just a simple flow that adds continual incremental improvement. Kaizen activities in manufacturing have proved that already. Huge benefits from kaizen projects clearly show the law of diminishing return. There comes a point that even the most refined processes needs to be "reinvented". The same is true with software. Bits and bytes do not fade with age, but the intent with which they were created, does. Rather than the old-school "bolt-on and build" approach, the time comes to build something that is completely new and fit for the new purpose. Industry 4.0, love it or not, represents a step-change in our thinking about how manufacturing works. As the industry revolution dawns, software that provides intelligent computerization is born.

The requirements and expectations placed on manufacturing software and the digital communication environment with Industry 4.0 is at least an order of magnitude greater than seen when designing any "old- school" point solution. There is a need for true holistic support for every aspect of the production operation that today creates and consumes vast amounts of data as part of the way it works. If you want to control the way a modern process works, you need to control the data. Not simple data any more, but "big data". This is not necessarily large data, but complex datasets of many different types.

Combining data from asset utilization, engineering and product knowledge, materials and supply chain, quality, tools, people, hundreds of types of specialist machines seamlessly, requires the next generation of solution. The solution has to span the entire breadth of the manufacturing process, from initial raw material right out to shipping, whilst also being capable of handling the intricacies of specialist areas such as SMT.

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