LOW CODE - Shadow IT?
In Amberg, Germany, Siemens manufactures one of its most important products: the Simatic controller. At the same location the company is also developing downloadable applications for its customers. App development alongside hardware production – how does this function?18 Jun 2019
In the past, a machine X-rayed all products to rule out faults. A special algorithm now analyzes predefined process data (40 different data sets) and calculates the probability of a fault occurring in a given batch. On this basis it is decided whether or not to X-ray the entire batch. In the past Siemens subjected 100% of the printed circuit boards to X-ray inspection. Thanks to the new algorithm, this figure has now been reduced to 30% – without any loss of quality. The algorithm was configured by means of machine learning. To this end, the process data was collated with the results of the X-ray machine over an extended period.
The next step: “We will neutralize the quality control application and make it available to our customers and partners via MindSphere,” explains Ralf-Michael Franke, CEO of the Siemens factory automation division. This marks the beginning of a new software and a new business model. MindSphere users can then deploy the app together with their products. In the past, developers needed several weeks or even months to program such an end-to-end application. Siemens is now banking on low code, on Mendix and on accelerated development.
Apps for the Appstore
“Low code means using visual approaches to develop applications,” explains Oskar Möbert, the engineer responsible for Mendix integration in MindSphere. Pioneered by Scopeland Technology, low-code platforms allow software to be assembled from prefabricated functionalities with the aid of a cockpit-like program – interactively and using drag and drop. In rare exceptions which cannot be implemented directly, small ‘code snippets’ are programmed in the language of the target system. These snippets can access the automatically generated object model. Low code has thus reduced the amount of manual programming and remains both simple and easily understandable.
Low code is not new. Comparable approaches are already in use in the engineering sector. But Mendix and Co. are becoming more and more important, thanks to new industrial requirements. Oskar Möbert, for example, needs applications that evaluate data from Siemens devices and solve customer problems. An app store without apps would quickly lose its appeal. “Today, applications must be developed quickly in order to test market potential. With low code the emphasis is not on technology, but on individual ideas for new apps,” he confirms.
Interface with HANA
Low-code platforms such as Mendix and Simplifier promise faster development – an important aspect given the shortage of specialist IT personnel. “A domain expert who is familiar with PLC systems or the TIA portal can also write applications with low code,” Möbert promises. Experts are already talking about ‘shadow IT’. “Of course, in-house IT departments can enhance their low code solutions. But this is often unnecessary,” reports the Siemens manager. Machine manufacturers can use this new form of programming to build prototypes within 15 minutes, test them with the customer and then develop them further.
Siemens responded to this trend and acquired Mendix – to the surprise of many observers. Mendix contributed a community of over 60,000 users, plus standard functionalities that are very expensive to development in individual cases. In addition, Mendix recently introduced an interface with SAP’s HANA platform.
Alongside Mendix, Simplifier is another well-known low-code platform “Made in Germany”. The originators are based in Würzburg and target their solutions at various industries – e.g., logistics, energy and mechanical engineering. The Swiss engineering company Buhler, for example, has developed low-code applications for different end devices. These exchange information with each other, thus creating a basis for digital networking and efficient assembly. The challenge facing Buhler was as follows: many components in the warehouse are very similar, and there was a risk of confusion. The task was to avoid picking the wrong components. In addition, deliveries to the production line were often delayed due to the unavailability of components. Frequently, the order picking trolleys could not be located. The resulting loss of time had to be eliminated by the seamless monitoring of the entire production process. “Thanks to the Simplifier low-code platform, the applications can be configured quickly and evaluated much more efficiently, so that productive use of the solutions is no longer far off,” explains John Benad of the Industrie 4.0 management consultants Marktgut, which supported Buhler in the project.
What are the lessons for industry?
And what about security? “Today’s established low-code platforms already meet the highest security standards and are perhaps even better than manually created software. The standard software approach delivers data security, accessibility and much more besides – ‘out of the box’,” writes Karsten Noack in a feature article for the International Data Group (IDG). Noack is founder and CEO of Scopeland Technology. Low-code technology is also ideally suited to large-scale projects – as evidenced in an IT project implemented recently by Scopeland for the Federal Office for Agriculture and Food (BLE). This fisheries monitoring software comprises more than 58 specialist modules. More than 99% of the approximately 1.9 million lines of program code were generated automatically.
Contrary to expectations, the fishery IT project has shown that the low-code development methodology does not come at the expense of stability, performance, security and other quality criteria. On the contrary, it results in significantly fewer program errors and other technical problems, according to the developers. This should be enough to convince the mechanical engineering industry.
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