If you ask any process engineer about the challenges facing their shop floor, they’ll have no problem listing off areas for improvement. If you ask how they would address those challenges, they’ll have an equally long list of solutions. No one knows a factory’s processes better than those charged with improving them.
The same is true of operators, quality engineers, lean experts, IT integration specialists, and everyone else working on the front lines. Those closest to manufacturing problems often understand them best. Yet they may not have the tools they need to create solutions themselves.
This is the guiding philosophy behind the no code revolution. In the past five years, flexible development platforms have empowered workers in every industry to design solutions to the challenges they face every day, without writing a single line of code.
Perhaps more than any other industry, no code platforms have the potential to change how manufacturers solve problems.
No code platforms can unlock new levels of efficiency, quality, and profitability. They put the power to design flexible, scalable, customizable applications in the hands of manufacturing experts. They enable better allocation of human and company resources. They also make sure that organizations leverage process and domain expertise to the fullest extent. Most importantly, these platforms give control back to workers on the shop floor.
This guide surveys how “no code” platforms will disrupt manufacturing. Chapters will explain:
- What “no code” means
- Why manufacturing needs no code solutions
- What no code looks like on the shop floor
What is No Code?
“No code” refers to visual development environments that allow workers to design applications without directly interacting with back-end systems. This environment is usually called a “platform,” meaning it provides a base upon which users can build new applications and technologies.
In short, “no code” refers to platforms that allow employees without technical training to build fully-functioning, enterprise-ready applications from scratch.
No code platforms provide, first and foremost, a development environment, usually in the form of a graphic user interface. These interfaces let anyone drag and drop elements into place, create rich functionality through event-based triggers and if-then logic, and track performance data as the app runs.
The benefits to no code are immediate and substantial. They include:
Better allocation of IT/engineer hours – if business users can design, build, implement, and iterate without IT intervention, IT and software engineers can devote their time to mission-critical work.
Solutions built in lock step with business problems – Because no code platforms enable customized solutions, no code developers can build solutions tailored to their problems, with exactly the features and functionality they need.
Ability to iterate and improve faster – Until recently, development shuttled back and forth between front line workers and IT. If workers wanted a new feature, they made a ticket, and someone in a different department hard-coded the new feature on their behalf. There was lag. Mistakes or miscommunications could lead to weeks or months of delay, as well as simmering frustrations on both sides of the technical divide. Now, no code eliminates this dance. Employees can make the changes they need without enlisting IT support.
Who is No Code For?
The short answer is: everybody.
Commentators commonly refer to no code as “democratizing development.” According to marketing materials everywhere, no code is bringing power to the people.
And there’s truth to the hype.
Just as Blogspot made it possible for anyone to be an author, and YouTube democratized video, no code platforms remove the technical barriers previously required to develop robust, production-ready applications. No code blurs the boundaries between producers and users of software (whom media theorists refer to as “produsers”) by creating an infrastructure for further development.
Since the advent of no code, commentators have settled on the term “citizen developer” to describe the democratization of development technology. Just as citizen scientists are vital to data collection and analysis on some of the world’s largest experiments, citizen developers leverage their hard won domain expertise without being limited by technical barriers.
Gartner has written that no code is a key pillar of a broader digital strategy precisely because it broadens a company’s development base. Their argument is that businesses will succeed faster if they can radically shorten the development cycle, and involve significantly more business personnel in the development process. According to the research firm, “citizen development is fundamental to digital transformation.”
Low Code vs. No Code
These two phrases are often spoken in the same breath. Quite often, they’re used interchangeably. It’s worth stating this clearly: low code and no code are not the same thing.
Low code still requires coding. It’s designed for developers, and its core benefit, among others, is a faster, more agile development cycle for business applications.
With no code, the name says it all.
Adrian Bridgwater, a journalist writing for Forbes, has pointedly differentiated low and no code platforms:
“It’s important to remember that low-code is not the same as no code. It’s not the same at all. no code is for businesspeople… and is really all about telling the system the functions you want and knowing that the technology can build it for you. Low-code is still for developers and (as we have said before) is still pretty complex, but it does offer a means of making things faster for people who have tangible software engineering skills.”
That said, the difference in complexity does not mean that no code development can only produce basic apps. As one commentator in Forbes has noted,
“The number one misconception is that no code is only for simple apps.”
Forbes continued, “no code platforms have become extremely sophisticated and support rich functionality in apps. It is now possible to build most end-to-end enterprise applications on a no code platform.”
This is a drum analysts, researchers, and advocates have beaten over and over. “Citizen development” does not mean “toy” applications without significant business utility. In fact, entire industries have shifted toward a no code model. Writing of the creep of “applications” and “citizen technologists” into marketing, Scott Brinker writes,
“And I don’t mean mobile apps, or at least not just mobile apps. That’s certainly one kind of app that can be built on aPaaS (application-based platform-as-a-service)-like platforms. But app building also encompasses business process apps, web apps, chatbot and messenger apps, etc. These are all different cases of the things citizen developers can create.”
For manufacturing, the list of applications is longer, nearly endless. They are as varied as factories themselves and, without indulging in hyperbole, limited only by an engineer’s creativity.
For Brinker, the effects of no code have been surprising. With a more powerful, flexible set of tools available to everyone, job descriptions in marketing are more fluid than ever. The same is true in web design, data analysis, and countless other industries and job functions.
And, as you’ll see below, this is especially true in manufacturing.
Why Manufacturing Needs No Code
No code platforms have the potential to be especially disruptive in manufacturing. When you outline the main benefits of no code development platforms (flexibility, speed, iterability, democratization), it should come as no surprise why.
Still, it helps to outline exactly why manufacturing needs the no code revolution. It all comes back to existing manufacturing software systems, and how no code thrives on their flaws.
If there’s one word to describe traditional manufacturing software, it’s “rigid.” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) can coordinate, execute, and track a factory’s processes, producing tangible improvements in quality, efficiency, and visibility. They’re rigid because they control such a varied and extensive range of processes, and an unvalidated change can be catastrophic.
But MES are built for IT, not for shop floor personnel. They’re difficult and expensive to customize (unless you’re getting a custom-built MES, you’ll need to change your workflows to fit the MES); slow to implement (according to Gartner, average implementation time for an MES is 15-16 months); difficult to update as operational needs change (requiring significant development support to do so); and they aren’t keeping up with the pace of technological development.
And this is just MES. There’s also the ERPs, CADs, stand-alone CNC software, inventory management software, Manufacturing Operations Management, among many other software systems a factory may enlist for its day-to-day operations (which, it should be added, add complexity in integration, not necessarily rigidity).
Further, rigidity runs against the grain of recent trends in manufacturing. More than ever, manufacturers are expected to produce customized products, and production lines need to accommodate numerous variations upon core products. New product introduction cycles are shorter than ever, and margins thinner. And short product life cycles means there’s no room for mistakes. As Vention.io CEO Etienne Lacroix reminds, “Saving two months of development lead-time on a product with a two-year lifecycle has an enormous impact on the product’s ROI.”
Benefits of No Code in Manufacturing
So how do the benefits of no code (flexibility, speed, iterability, democratization) translate to manufacturing? Here’s a closer look.
Improved Agility – Agile methodologies aren’t just for software developers any more. Organizations across industries and verticals are harnessing the ideas behind agile for their transformational benefits. To listen to the experts, Agile Manufacturing is the future.
Those familiar with agile methods might have recognized that the benefits of no code are much the same as the benefits of agile.
Because no code places control back in the hands of the engineers and operators closest to the manufacturing problems, it encourages rapid iteration, decentralized decision making, smaller value delivered more often, and faster response to change.
Better Allocation of Resources – Given the way commentators laud how no code “liberates” business users from IT, you might expect there to be some antagonism between the two units. This isn’t entirely true.
Because no code allows each side of the technical divide to do what they do best, it leads to much better allocation of valuable IT time and engineering resources.
In many cases, this means faster time-to-market, and more secure systems overall.
Perhaps counterintuitively, no code solutions are just as valuable for companies with deep benches of developers as they are for those without significant engineering resources. As the deployment manager of one technology and marketing solutions company noted of her decision to use a no code platform, “Of course if our developers had time, they could have come up with solutions. But we didn’t have time, and if we’d waited for the developers, we’d be out $1 million.”
This is also true in manufacturing. When rolling out a new line of food products, manufacturer of smart kitchen technology Chefsteps, a company with many capable software developers, faced a make or buy decision: should they divert engineering resources to build manufacturing applications, or purchase a no code solution?
Ultimately, they decided to use Tulip’s no code solution, and the benefits were immediate. As Chefsteps software engineer Jeremy Shaffer noted, “From an ROI perspective, our investment in building apps in Tulip is far less than the opportunity cost we would incur by building our own custom software.”
Decentralizing Innovation – An unintended consequence of hierarchies is that they are slow to innovate. The more layers and approvals an idea has to traverse before it can happen, the more hands involved in bringing it to life, the slower it will move. By decentralizing development–by removing the barriers preventing business users from experimenting and testing–no code platforms encourage innovation.
One commentator made this point well when he argued that,
“The platforms that empower citizen developers — application-platform-as-a-service (aPaaS) — are a great example of a centralized technology (the platform) that enables decentralized innovation (the apps), balancing the freedom to create with lightweight governance and guardrails.”
No code platforms lower the opportunity cost for innovation by decreasing the distance between ideas and execution.
What No Code Looks Like in the Shop Floor
No code development begins with a platform and a business case.
In manufacturing, the use cases for no code applications are many. Common ones include visual work instructions, inline quality assurance, machine changeover, tool tracking, and root cause analysis. The list could go on forever.
Once a manufacturing engineer identifies a use case, they brainstorm what steps it would take to address their problem. Once these steps have been outlined, they use the platform to turn an abstract set of steps into a concrete solution.
Engineers design their applications using the platform’s visual editor. Within the visual editor, they embed media, add text, and drag and drop elements to match their desired layout. Through software like Powerpoint, most individuals have extensive experience designing slides and other visual presentations. Manufacturing application platforms are no different. If you’ve put together a deck, you can build a manufacturing app.
Unlike presentation software, however, manufacturing applications can be programmed for a much wider range of functions. Their increased functionality comes from their ability to incorporate conditional logic into applications.
Whereas presentation software follows a linear, stepwise progression through a deck, no code manufacturing applications can respond to inputs from people, machines, and ambient conditions in real time. To be truly functional in a manufacturing context, no code applications need more than a drag-and-drop interface. They need IoT connectivity, responsive logic, and control over multiple variables.
With advanced no code solutions, manufacturers can program responses to specific inputs. These inputs can trigger a response if they meet certain conditions. Conditional, if-then logic allows manufacturers to create branch logic, so that one set of actions occurs given a specific input, but not others. And, like most software, these applications store the data they collect while they run. This gives manufacturers unprecedented visibility into their factory’s processes.
Manufacturing apps differentiate themselves from other solutions through Internet of Things connectivity. Simple plug-and-play connectors let engineers create apps that communicate with machines and devices in real time. Now, engineers can design applications that connect people and machines into a responsive, dynamic whole.
Applications coordinate people and processes, and response to certain pre-programmed conditions while recording and delivering data in real time. This is a revolutionary step from the past, where teams of developers could take days to scope, write, and push minor developments.
If this still sounds abstract, it’s not your fault. We tend to understand objects better than ideas. A few example applications should clear up any remaining confusion.
Sample No Code Applications
Fishbone Diagram (Root Cause Analysis)
When problems happen, engineers need to be able to isolate the root cause, fast, to implement a corrective action and prevent future occurrences. Often, root cause analysis is a paper intensive, manual task, requiring significant data collection, aggregation, and analysis.
Using a manufacturing application platform, engineers can design customized, paperless root cause analysis that automatically document root causes. Engineers can use no code logic to create custom root cause pathways, making it easy to get to the bottom of problems.
Visual Work Instructions
Paper work instructions are difficult to follow, easy to damage, and prone to misinterpretation. For factories with high-mix assemblies, high turnover, of rapid product cycles, they are inadequate to the task. Further, they provide no mechanism for proving that operators executed assemblies as indicated.
No code platforms let engineers design media rich, visual work instructions. IoT connectivity responds to operator actions in real time, and guarantees that instructions are followed to the letter. Conditional logic lets engineers design work instructions that are responsive to even the most complicated, customizable assemblies.
Visual Quality Inspection
Quality non-conformances happen. When they do, it’s critical to catch them at the source, before they move downstream. Quality issue caught early mean less scrape and fewer hours spent on rework.
By connecting to IoT devices, like cameras, to a no code visual quality inspection app, engineers can error proof their lines. Such apps use cameras identify and document quality issues where and when they happen, and conditional logic automatically the appropriate action sequence when something goes wrong. For factories with highly variable production schedules, no code lets engineers make changes for every product without creating an IT ticket.
The signs that no code platforms are here to stay are clear. There aren’t enough software engineers to meet demand. Business cycles are moving faster than ever. And there’s a greater need than ever for customized business applications.
There are equally as many signs that manufacturers can benefit from no code platforms.
No code platforms return control to front line engineers. They give IT time to focus on critical systems and security initiatives. And they’re flexible enough to rise to manufacturing’s toughest challenges.