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Adopting an Open Ecosystem: The Way Forward for Frontline Operations

Learn how adopting an open ecosystem approach empowers manufacturers to capitalize on agility during industry shifts.

The Future of Manufacturing is Now

Choosing the right systems to increase the productivity of your operations is critical to ensuring your business remains competitive in today’s manufacturing environment.

In the past, expensive, one-stop-shop monolithic software reigned supreme. But there were problems these offerings couldn’t solve, and many of the organizations that invested in these solutions continued to rely on paper and spreadsheets to fill the gaps. This ultimately led to wasted time and resources, as well as data silos.

Every shop floor is different and prescribed, monolithic solutions fail to support the business and operational needs of dynamic environments. Manufacturers across different sectors are making the shift from a monolithic approach to a human-centric tech stack — allowing them to establish an infrastructure that can more easily adapt to change.

In line with this new paradigm, leading vendors are embracing an open ecosystem architecture through which they can provide a collaborative solution with integrated partners to solve their customers’ latest challenges.

This is a critical shift for the industry as it comes with the recognition that no single vendor can provide a solution that addresses all of a manufacturer’s needs. Many have tried — and the result has been a stagnant operations technology landscape.

Gone are the days of monoliths and their proprietary, exclusive walled gardens. There’s a new tech stack for frontline operations — and at its core is a connected ecosystem that incorporates both new and legacy players.

Frontline worker drilling at a bench, with an app screen in the background.

What Exactly is an ‘Ecosystem’?

You need to look no further than the cell phone in your hand to see how various contributors — from phone manufacturers to service providers to app developers — can come together to form an invaluable ecosystem that makes your daily life much easier.

An ecosystem for frontline operations can have many different types of contributors, but some core examples include providers of the following: hardware and software, data acquisition/IoT services, enterprise applications, and connectivity and infrastructure services.

While this type of ecosystem is not a new concept, now’s the time when it can be truly effective and have a real impact — particularly due to the ongoing disconnect between expectation and reality when it comes to digital transformation for manufacturers.

Consider a facility that has a limited budget: They don’t have the resources to go to one big industrial vendor for everything they need. These organizations have to get creative to solve their problems. And this includes finding a way to use the solutions they’ve invested in over the previous decades — whether that’s hardware, software, or a mixture of both — in combination with the latest and greatest new technology.

By adopting an open ecosystem approach, organizations at every stage of the digital transformation spectrum can integrate their new and legacy solutions quickly and easily — ultimately empowering them to alleviate or eliminate unnecessarily manual processes, and make more informed decisions with real-time data and extended production visibility.

Frontline worker using an app near a big machine.

What Does an Operations Ecosystem Look Like in Practice?

An optimal ecosystem infrastructure doesn't just involve the integration of software and devices. It also involves a network of partners and practitioners that can implement the processes successfully — and adapt to changes over time. And a huge value driver of that partnership is seamless integrations that allow customers to easily connect new solutions to the systems they already use every day.

Organizations never need to adapt their processes to fit a system again. Now the opposite holds true: They can adapt their tools to fit their processes, and they can do so in an effective and controlled manner.

In practice, the new operations ecosystem empowers manufacturers to do the following:

1. Drive Collaboration and Knowledge Sharing Across the Industry

A common challenge for today’s manufacturers is overcoming the knowledge gaps left by workers who no longer work for the organization — especially when those workers had created their own solutions that no one else knows how to fully operate or build upon.

Today’s process engineers want a community to lean on when looking for solutions to these types of operations problems, whether they’re struggling to figure out how a custom-built Andon system works or trying to determine the specs of an existing stack light in their facility.

With an infrastructure built for open protocols and collaboration, manufacturers across different industries can easily share resources. This could include use case-focused curated content, device-agnostic support materials, demos, templates, tutorials, and more. For instance, at Tulip, all of this type of content is freely searchable in the Library.

Picture an open ecosystem that provides public APIs, learning resources, and support standards — creating a meaningful repository of tools and best practices. This level of openness will lead to effective knowledge sharing for manufacturers, which will, in turn, drive more informed decision-making and continuous improvement.

With this new focus on openness comes an understanding across the industry that there’s a value in vendors working together to achieve the greater good: empowering manufacturers to build their own best-in-breed tech stacks. From a vendor perspective, this means building an infrastructure of offerings in such a way that manufacturers can easily choose which hardware and software — both legacy and new — they want to connect to achieve their unique goals.

Once you have this new architecture in place, your data can flow freely between disparate systems to unlock the real possibilities of interoperability — making the open sharing of information and best practices across sites easier than ever. In practice, this might involve the establishment of centers of excellence (COE), which enable you to balance agility and cost by taking a center-led approach to governance.

For many manufacturers, discrepancies in tools and processes across sites lead to product quality issues, wasted resources, and workforce frustrations. An open infrastructure ultimately streamlines the process of sharing resources across facilities — empowering you to enforce standardization, drive efficiencies, and ensure compliance.

2. Streamline Digital Transformation and Integration Processes

Today’s manufacturers no longer need to take a complex rip-and-replace approach that wastes time and money.

An open ecosystem infrastructure provides a faster time-to-value than the traditional monolithic approach because it empowers manufacturers to start small and optimize additional processes as time goes on.

As opposed to using a rigid system that requires specialty skills to make any changes and doesn’t consider the specific user, the optimal new tech stack is one that’s flexible and adaptable to each organization. And for manufacturers, that inherently means using different systems and solutions from different providers to meet their specific needs — and keeping the people who actually have to use the tools in mind while building this tech stack.

With a cloud architecture and an open ecosystem, it’s easier than ever to connect current and future machines, equipment, IT systems, and web services. You no longer need to rely on complex, custom API integrations to achieve connected workflows and real-time production visibility.

Frontline workers on the factory floor.

3. Capitalize on Agility During Industry Shifts

Unlike traditional monolithic solutions that require months of additional work and incremental costs to build out new facets and functionalities, an open ecosystem of composable solutions empowers you to integrate new technologies quickly and easily.

This type of adaptable infrastructure is particularly valuable when it comes to fast-changing technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI).

When new technology or processes emerge, your organization can adjust and extend as necessary — because that’s how your tech stack is built.

This faster iteration process enables you to remain agile and seamlessly adapt to the latest market changes — while also continuously finding new opportunities to improve product quality, shop floor productivity, and employee engagement.

An open ecosystem empowers you to shift from simply surviving the latest industry shifts to thriving during these times — because your infrastructure will be so adaptable that you can gain a competitive edge by capitalizing on these changes first.

Thriving Through Transformation Via an Open Ecosystem Approach

Organizations of different sizes (with different types of technical infrastructures) are already building and implementing the solution ecosystems that fit their unique needs — highlighting that this new model can work for manufacturers at every stage of digital maturity.

Optimizing Dialysis With Digital Operations

On one end of the spectrum are organizations like Outset Medical, a company that has been thinking about digitalization from Day 1 when it comes to manufacturing their complex product — a dialysis machine.

As Marc Nash, VP of Manufacturing at Outset, explained in an episode of the Augmented Ops podcast, Outset needed to rapidly set up a facility, build processes with a quality-first mindset, and be able to scale an operation in under nine months. Undergoing these steps in that time period would be nearly impossible with paper records and disconnected systems — and so a smart factory tech stack was a core infrastructure requirement for Outset’s success.

In examples like this where organizations need the ability to move quickly, it’s clear that larger, monolithic systems are not up to the challenge. Trying to make process or connectivity changes in these types of traditional infrastructures could lead to hundreds of thousands of dollars of incremental consulting costs, months of additional work, or widespread disengagement amongst employees.

By incorporating composable apps created using a frontline operations platform into their ecosystem, Outset was able to convert 2,700 pieces of paper and 7,000 steps into over 90 applications. Team members and employees are now empowered to take action if they see something that’s not correct. They can easily create an app and connect it into their existing systems.

If you’re in some of these larger monolithic systems, if we change our processes, if we change… how we have system connectivity, that could be tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars of additional incremental consulting work. It could take months to get done. And frankly, what it leads to is a disengagement and a disempowerment of our employees… [In contrast,] my team members and my employees are empowered to say if they see something that’s not correct or that we could do differently, create an app, connect it into our systems, and let’s go.

Marc Nash, VP of Manufacturing and General Manager, Outset Medical

Bridging the Gap Between Workers, Machines, and Solutions

An open ecosystem is not just for digitally mature organizations or those that are willing to rip-and-replace their entire existing tech stack. Part of the value lies in the ability for manufacturers to build off of the systems they already have — ultimately driving new efficiencies. This value point is particularly meaningful to manufacturers in highly specialized sectors like luxury goods, in which legacy systems are a way of life, and quality craftsmanship is critical to success.

For example, an American luxury jeweler with over 10,000 active SKUs needed to find a way to maintain precise execution of frontline operations requiring high attention to detail (for variables such as pour duration, temperature, and timing) — while also scaling their labor and machine centers. This posed a challenge, particularly due to the unique work instructions for each design at any given casting facility.

The jeweler’s production and assembly processes are composed of many different stations with a wide variety of machines, equipment, devices, and protocols. And they needed a tech stack that could incorporate the machines that they already had with more current, advanced solutions.

In examples like this one, manufacturers need to find a way to optimize a machine fleet that is made up of old equipment and heritage machines that are essential to their level of craftsmanship — while also implementing a range of new technologies to leverage the latest innovations.

By connecting stranded machines and introducing composable apps created using a frontline operations platform into their tech stack, the jeweler was able to increase their visibility across sites and identify any bottlenecks. They implemented standardized work instructions, which allowed them to confirm that operators were following best practices across all of their sites — ultimately preventing variations in batch and quality and removing their dependence on paper documentation.

Unlike rigid monolithic solutions, this ecosystem approach allowed engineers to define their own data structures and what needed to be tracked — producing a wealth of information on how each batch was made, who made it, and how long each step took to complete. The jeweler increased productivity by 18% using Tulip apps to inform their decisions, standardize operations, and error-proof their workflows.

Tulip provides a frictionless platform that makes standardizing work instructions and data collection effortless, and enables companies to discover the unknown unknowns in their frontline operations. With all the data, leaders are able to make informed decisions to improve productivity and quality, and quickly get a return on investment.

Director of Operations, Luxury Jeweler

Embracing This New Paradigm Shift

We have moved beyond the era of using one system for everything. There’s no one machine that can do it all — and today’s manufacturers no longer need to take a complex rip-and-replace approach that wastes time and money.

The operations ecosystem is not a theoretical concept: It’s already providing real business value to manufacturers across different verticals. There’s been a paradigm shift in how manufacturing software vendors collaborate, with a culture change that focuses on integration and creating value for you — the customer.

It’s time to embrace an open ecosystem, and start integrating technology partners into your tech stack so that you can develop fit-for-purpose solutions that meet your organization’s unique needs.

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Woman engaging with a frontline operations app on a screen.