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The Rise of the Citizen Developer: Democratizing Operations Technology

Learn how manufacturers are using low-code and no-code technologies to accelerate their digital transformation.

What does it mean to democratize technology and how do you build new tech stacks that help manufacturers completely rethink their digital strategies?

A lot has happened in the evolution of technology for us to ask this question.

The discussion of lowering technical barriers has been around for years, but the big push around no-code platforms has gained traction in more recent years. One may attribute this to the lack of technical capabilities behind building robust, intuitive no-code platforms, but it was rather that the digital culture was not yet fully mature.

So how has digital technology evolved, and how did the digital community and culture grow alongside those technologies? Let’s follow along with history.

Chapter One: History of No-Code

In simple terms, the democratization of technology means exposing technology beyond just the software engineers and making it available to everyone. And when you think about it in the context of software development and creating applications, the history of computing gives us a good backstory of how we got to this point.

Let's go back in time for a moment to understand where we came from.

IBM Type 704 (1957)

What you see in this picture above is the IBM type 704 from 1957. It was the first mass-produced computer and was the size of a room. This computer was highly complex and used programming languages like the Fortran and LISP, which only a few people knew at the time. Although these languages are still in use today, the learning curve remains steep.

DEC PDP-8 (1965)

Now let’s fast forward to 10 years later. This DEC PDP-8 from 1965 was the first affordable mainframe made by a Digital Equipment Corporation. Thousands were produced, and as a result, a community of developers went from tens to hundreds to thousands.

Commodore PET 2001, Apple II, TRS-80 (1977)

Then a decade later came the PC revolution, and companies like Commodore and Apple created personal computers. This was the very beginning of building applications, the founding of early hacker culture. And this revolutionized and expanded upon the thousands of developers from the DEC PDP-8 era into millions of people writing software.


Then the next big innovation was the internet. As the sticker on the first server read, “This machine is a server, DO NOT POWER IT DOWN!!”, the internet really allowed anyone with a text editor to become a publisher. And this opened up millions more to programming.

Apple iPhone (2007)

And finally, smartphones came along and integrated various applications into every corner of our daily lives. We now live in a world driven by applications, and its proliferation has brought a lot more people to write software, whether it's for consumer purposes or business. And this is the entry point at which the discussion of no-code and citizen development begins.

No-code and local platforms have been around for a while, but unfortunately, they have fundamentally been built for engineers and IT folks. It was made for those that already knew software development to save time and money because building applications from scratch was highly costly.

However, in recent years, no-code has seen greater utility. It has provided a competitive edge for businesses trying to keep up with the pace of consumer needs and dynamic markets. And now, no-code has become an integral part of most standard tech stacks among both professional software developers and other non-technical functions.

Here are examples of how no code has become essential to keep up with the pace of business needs:

The key thing shared among these specific vertical types of no-code is that they can easily be used by those who are not software developers. The rise of no-code is not just a trend, but a testament to how important the democratization of technology is becoming.

Chapter Two: No-Code in Operational Technology

Now let’s talk about no-code in the context of OT (Operational Technology).

Even in OT, this concept of no-code is not entirely new. About 20 years ago, there were tools like Wonderware that paved its way and created a new class of HMIs that were built in a drag and drop fashion. However, that generation of no-code tools was PC or PLC-centric, and in the age of cloud computing, the way we work with technology and how we understand network connectivity calls for a different base tech stack.

First, we must know who the end-users of no-code OT are. It turns out that about 20% of the global workforce are frontline operators that are fundamentally deskless and working directly on the shop floors. And these frontline workers require just as much dynamic data as any other knowledge workers, and they need access to the right tools to get the data they need to stay competitive.

Their work environments are highly complex with work cells, sensors, benches, conveyor belts, and back end systems in what constitutes a physical and digital environment, and they need a system that is just as dynamic to support all the moving pieces.

The old way of doing things, which is typically the MDS-centric approach, can rely on static data models that slow down the production process and only add to the bill.

This is where no-code truly outshines the traditional systems.

Bottom Up Digital Transformation in OT

When it comes to building a no-code for operational technology in the era of the cloud, it isn’t just about allocating sufficient time or money. More importantly, the front-line workers need to be along for the ride in the digital transformation.

As we have seen with the evolution of any no-code, digital culture must follow. Therefore, the introduction of no-code platforms cannot be forced upon frontline workers in a hierarchical manner. The movement needs to happen from the bottom up.

According to recently published Gartner research, the leading reason companies invest in MES is to improve the ability of employees to make key decisions for themselves. This means that organizations invest in digital systems for the same reasons no-code is changing the future of work. No-code allows people to take ownership of the tools and the data workflow that they're generating. It gives power back to the shop floor workers.

Here’s a quick example of No-code for OT:

This is Tulip’s application library, a collection of apps based on manufacturing’s best practices and use cases. The library has pre-designed, configurable logic commands and UI interfaces that are essentially ready-to-go apps for various types of operations. And this can all be done without writing a single line of code or implementing system integrations.

Watching our customers build their applications, we have identified seven key factors that make no-code solutions a successful experience for users.

Here are the recurring themes:

  1. Ease of use – building applications should be as easy as building a PowerPoint.

  2. A solution that is easy to connect to existing systems. Whether that’s to backend systems, legacy systems, ERPs, web services.

  3. No-code OT tools should include elements of analytics to help understand what’s happening with the data that the apps are collecting.

  4. And this should all happen without compromising control or compliance, including adherence to standards like the GxP or ISO.

  5. Shared content and knowledge gives people the resources to self-learn.

  6. A community where those open-source knowledge can be repurposed and reshared to speed up the work cycle.

  7. A true sense of connecting the digital world and the physical world – how the edge data collection equipment talks to other sensors and machines with the human worker in mind.

Impact of No-Code in OT

No-code OT will hit fast, and it will leave a huge impact on the industry.

In the last 12 months alone, we've seen our customers build over 18,000 applications for all sorts of things in their operations. But what's even more exciting is that these applications generated more than 15 million data points that were previously unattainable, but were critical for customers to operate their businesses.

However, the impact of no-code OT isn’t just in the numbers. What makes it particularly meaningful is its encouragement of citizen development and a movement towards supporting the workers’ creativity.

Here is what the Industrial Engineer and Creator of Toyota Production System, Taiichi Ohno, once said.

Same as the ‘Toyota style’ of putting no limit to human creativity, the same needs to be unleashed with OT no-code. Frontline workers should come into the shop floor not to work, but to think and problem solve. And in order to do so, they need the right tools.

This impact of promoting citizen development in operation will lead to faster iterations of products which will bring faster adaptations to market changes and improved quality and productivity. And a greater emphasis on citizen development will mean a more engaged workforce, which already has well-known benefits such as increased retention, job satisfaction, productivity, and a sense of ownership. And as a result of a highly engaged workforce, IT and OT can finally come together.

Three Predictions for the Future of OT

Here are three quick predictions of where No-code OT is headed next:

  1. Companies that embrace their workforce with better tools will be more successful.

  2. The actual use of the term ‘no-code’ will diminish, and it will just be the way everyone gets things done without a second thought.

  3. Artificial intelligence will enable citizen developers by making data more visible, optimizing human/machine processes, and augmenting human skills.

Chapter Three: Conclusion

The democratization of technology did not happen because of one company or industry. It was driven by a cultural revolution where technology had to adapt to humans and not the other way around.

Nonetheless, this democratization has been slower for some industries than others, and operational technology is starting to catch up at a rapid pace.

Throughout this guide, we’ve introduced you to many of the ways that no-code OT is transforming how work is done on the front lines.

If you’re interested in how no-code OT can transform your operations, get in touch.

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