First things first. Let’s get a basic definition of Application Ecosystem on the table. 

What is an application ecosystem?

“Application ecosystem” refers to modern business operations supported by a series of related, complimentary applications.

The term ecosystem is useful because it refers to the connections between apps, as well as to a given application’s connections to devices, processes, and people. It’s the sense of interconnectedness–between multiple applications, and between processes–that makes the concept of an ecosystem appropriate here.  

Why Ecosystem?

Ultimately, the phrase “application ecosystem” relies on the metaphor “ecosystem.” 

So let’s put pressure on that metaphor to see what it can tell us about modern manufacturing. 

What are ecosystems, really? Why ecosystem and not “network”? 

At a basic level, ecosystems refer to interconnected communities in nature. (Or an urban environment, between media, or amongst ideas–the metaphor has a long history). In nature, the term ecosystem signals interdependence. Symbiosis. Ecosystems are comprised of communities and sub-communities in a relationship of mutual dependence.

In short, ecosystems are dynamic wholes. They’re emergent systems equal to more than the sum of their parts. 

So what does this have to do with manufacturing? 

Modern manufacturing is increasingly dependent on applications. And not just one application here, another there. Applications are used throughout a factory. The result is a densely webbed network of machines, IIoT devices, information, and human action — all facilitated at a fundamental level by applications. 

In short, an application ecosystem. 

The factory as ecosystem

There’s an inherent quality of connection in every factory. 

Think about what a factory really is. (The metaphor breaks down a little here: factories have a goal, where as life itself simply is). Factories are collections of processes and cells. Through coordinated action, inventory comes in, and newly fabricated, assembled, or otherwise processed goods go out. Every line or cell or process is connected to others. Without these connections, manufacturing couldn’t happen. 

We could easily describe the average factory as an ecosystem. But it would be an unhealthy one. 

Most factories suffer from poor connections between communities. Departments are siloed. Information is lost as WiP progresses across lines. Resources aren’t used efficiently. 

These are all characteristics of failing ecosystems in nature. 

So the question becomes, how can applications improve the health of the factory “ecosystem”? 

How application ecosystems can transform manufacturing

Where applications can help–and why they’re now essential–is with connectivity. 

Let’s take a look at home some common manufacturing applications are used in a hypothetical factory.

Process  visibility applications are one of the most common types of manufacturing applications. 

Process visibility apps allow manufacturers to track WiP, measure cycle times, and log who did what, when. As a result of these applications, engineers can make more informed decisions about workcell layout, process design, and operator training. 

In the machining department on the other side of the factory, a machine monitoring application measures uptime and downtime. It gives a real time readout of throughput, enabling the engineer to better balance lines and route production. 

All the while quality assurance applications make sure that defective parts are caught before they trigger a costly rework loop. 

So what’s the point of describing this hypothetical factory? 

It’s to show how each of these apps, though they have different purposes and benefit different processes, all work together to create more efficient systems in the aggregate. 

Machine monitoring apps help plan production; quality apps guarantee only good parts are progressing forward; and process visibility makes sure that any last mile assemblies or finishing is performed as quickly and correctly as possible. 

To summarize, all of these applications form an ecosystem. 

The result for manufacturers, is multiple process improvements that reinforce and amplify the impact of others. 

What the application ecosystem means for you

Networked factories are the future. You didn’t need me to tell you that. 

But one of the big questions asked of Industry 4.0 is, “What does the connected factory look like?” 

I hope this post helped you answer that question. And hopefully you think about your operations a little differently. 

Now that you know what an application ecosystem is, you can envision what one would look like in your operations. 

If you want to learn more about how IIoT Platforms are making application ecosystems possible, read more here.