So much more traction on those [open-source] tools, so much better experience.

Alex Krüger
Co-Founder and CEO, UMH

In a recent episode of the Augmented Ops podcast, we took a deep dive into the world of open-source software (OSS) and what it means for manufacturing with Alex Krüger, Co-Founder and CEO of United Manufacturing Hub (UMH). Titled "Open Source Software for Manufacturing," the discussion with Krüger examines the role of open-source software, how it supports new architectures like Unified Namespace (UNS), and why manufacturers are shifting away from legacy vendors and building their own tech stacks.

From starting fresh out of university working on automation projects with the big consulting firms, to eventually co-founding UMH and building a new set of open-source tools, Krüger shares his insights on the need for a new approach to manufacturing software. In particular, he calls on the industry to abandon the proprietary tech stacks of the legacy vendors and adopt an open-source Unified Namespace architecture as the foundation of their business.

Closed-Source Woes

Krüger's first forays into industrial automation came when he and his co-founder Jeremy Theocharis were working with large consulting firms, tasked with using software to connect to their clients' machines and collect data, for example to conduct an OEE analysis. Under the time constraints that they had, this seemingly straightforward project quickly unveiled the rigidity, cost, and difficulty of implementing closed-source tools from the existing industrial automation vendors.

All these [vendors] were saying, ‘we have everything you need, just buy us, no problems anymore.’

Alex Krüger
Co-Founder and CEO, UMH

While every vendor promised that their solutions could handle every aspect of the integration on their own, Krüger’s team realized that none of them had the best-in-class solutions for every part of the architecture being built. “We need a middle layer. We need protocol converters,” he says, continuing that “Oh, what about when the internet connection is going out? We need some buffering in there. Oh, we [also] need a database, and it adds up and adds up and then more and more edge cases pop up.”

His frustration with closed-source tools wasn't just about the technical limitations. And while the cost of these enterprise software packages were significant, "the price was never the issue" either, according to Krüger. Instead, he points to poor documentation and lengthy sales cycles as the primary barriers to implementing the system in the timeframe that they had been given.

Unlike open-source software, which can often be downloaded and installed in seconds from a command line interface, the enterprise software vendors with whom Krüger was working required him to go through a lengthy sales process before he was able to get the tools he needed. The result was that it would take “weeks, months before you have the product in hand,” he describes. In an agile manufacturing environment, that’s time that he simply did not have.

Process engineer building a Tulip app in the app editor.

But even once he did have access to the software, Krüger still struggled with the lack of available documentation. When he ran into an issue, he describes oftentimes the only solution was to “text somebody [from the vendor]. He comes back to you three business days later and sends you a random PDF,” which was often of questionable usefulness for solving the problem. Ultimately, he realized that the traditional, closed-source approach taken by the legacy vendors in the space was inadequate on multiple levels.

Why Manufacturing Needs Open-Source Software

While nearly every single digital product that we use in our daily lives is built on open-source software, the manufacturing industry has been extremely slow to adopt the same approach. As manufacturers now take steps to digitally transform their operations, many of them have the opportunity to rebuild their aging tech stacks and leverage the power of open source.

As Krüger explains, one of the most compelling arguments for open source in manufacturing is its inherent flexibility. Unlike the proprietary systems offered by legacy vendors, open-source software allows anyone to edit the underlying code to meet their unique needs, enabling effectively limitless customization and flexibility. This openness helps ensure that manufacturing systems can evolve with the ever-changing needs of the end users.

There was like no second thought about going closed source on the commodity tools.

Alex Krüger
Co-Founder and CEO, UMH

Another key benefit he found was the improved documentation and support. While it may seem counterintuitive that an OSS project (which typically relies on volunteer community members) would do a better job of providing documentation and technical assistance than a legacy vendor with a dedicated team, this was the reality that Krüger often encountered. For example, he describes running into issues with Node-RED (an OSS tool for interacting with IIoT devices) and finding a solution by referencing YouTube tutorials and community forums.

The adoption of open-source software is also an investment in the future. With proprietary software from legacy vendors, you’re often locked into buying all your solutions from the same vendor because they closely control how other tools can integrate with their ecosystem. Not only does this limit your ability to choose best-in-class solutions for each part of your tech stack, but it also means that if the vendor ever goes out of business (or just chooses to no longer continue to support the solution you rely on) you’re simply out of luck. In such scenarios, a rip-and-replace is often the only viable path forward.

A leader and an operator looking and gesturing at a monitor at their workstation

An Open-Source Unified Namespace

Krüger explains how he went about building an open-source alternative, selecting the Unified Namespace (UNS) architecture as the centerpiece of the UMH platform. A UNS provides a shared location to which of your systems can publish data, making data that was once siloed within specific applications accessible for a much wider range of users and use cases.

Data is with a unified namespace, commoditized. It's easily accessible.

Alex Krüger
Co-Founder and CEO, UMH

While the idea of opening up all business data and having it flow into a shared broker might still be foreign to most manufacturers, “it's already best practice in IT data streaming,” according to Krüger. “If you now design an R&D organization, sales, logistics, whatever, you would have this Kafka broker in the middle and stream data through it,” he says, “and the unified namespace is a new term of making this applicable for engineering.”

The real value of UNS, however, comes from the way it democratizes data. As Krüger lays out, implementing a UNS helps to erase the line between IT and OT worlds, since they now share a common data infrastructure. As Krüger explains, “Unified Namespace could be like this coupling in between OT and IT and also unblock these situations where IT is forbidding innovation.” By making data from all across the business available for citizen developers to use to solve problems, he believes that the UNS represents the best foundation for manufacturers to digitally transform their operations.

Open Source Software for Manufacturing

Check out the full podcast episode for even more insights into Krüger’s vision for the future of an open-source Unified Namespace for manufacturing.

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