This post is adapted from an interview with Russ Waddell, Tulip’s Community Lead, for the Advanced Manufacturing Now podcast. The episode aired September 7, 2022.

Manufacturing has a fundamental problem. In modern factories and production operations, “everything has a computer, either directly running it, or very closely involved in the process. And yet the software that runs factories isn't very good.” That’s according to Tulip Community Lead Russ Waddell in a recent interview with SME’s Smart Manufacturing Now podcast.

The problem, according to Waddell, is that ubiquitous computing in and around manufacturing has yet to reach the quality of user experience, design, and functionality that everyone uses with consumer devices and software. The solution, though, may be largely just a matter of time. That’s because openness and composability are making their way into many manufacturing software buyers’ decision making criteria.

What are composable manufacturing systems?

Composable systems in industrial software are those that can be built by selecting multiple best-in-class pieces and combining them together, rather than being monolithic single-vendor solutions or full-blown custom code. Historically, that can be a tough sell when customers are buying software like they buy capital equipment.

“When you specify software, there's this temptation to think, ‘Well, I can get a turnkey and it's gonna solve all the pieces that I need solved because I'm spending a bunch of money from a well known vendor,’” says Waddell. In reality, though, a great deal of software sold in this manner is still composed of off-the-shelf pieces. So manufacturers who adjust their thinking from the outset to acknowledge complexity and take on the associated risk management and planning are saving headaches and heartache down the road. In the best cases, this shift in thinking is an incremental adjustment from what’s already normal practice in industrial markets.

“The idea that you have to compose these pieces is already something kind of innate in building industrial systems,” says Waddell. “There’s no willful hostility towards composable systems.” Rather, he says, there have been missing prerequisites that are falling into place now and forcing a shift in behavior. Chief among those are customer expectations and vendor attitudes towards open product architectures. Only in the last decade have industrial customers widely started to write openness and extensibility requirements into RFPs for capital equipment, and vendors have taken time to adjust to those demands.

Ultimately, though, industrial operations and manufacturing are getting closer to the experience people are used to from consumer software and everyday devices. “The changes that are taking place are predictable,” says Waddell. “It was predictable how we got where we are now, and it’s predictable where we’re going next” because patterns of development and digitization have repeated in other industries. As manufacturing continues to advance and evolve, and as industry continues to embrace composable and modular approaches to system design, pragmatic optimism and high-but-realistic expectations are keys to staying competitive.

“The temptation is to feel like this is the best manufacturing has ever been,” says Waddell, “and that’s true. But don’t compare it to what you’ve seen, compare it to what it could be.”