Software: Making In-House Apps with Low-Code, No-Code Platforms
Manufacturing Engineering Magazine October 2019
By Ilene Wolff
Banking on the premise that sometimes the best ideas for solving problems come from the ground up, manufacturers are adopting no-code and low-code programming platforms to let employees solve problems by building their own custom apps.
Prompting the creation of these platforms is the need for apps that can’t be found in iTunes or Google Play Store, compounded by a shortage of good coders, IT departments and agencies that are overloaded with work, the expense and time involved in creating an application, and the varying quality of what’s produced.
As a result, Gartner Inc., a global research and advisory firm in IT and other industry sectors, predicted that by 2024, low-code application development will account for more than 65 percent of app development activity.
Some of the most popular DIY apps used in manufacturing are ones for warranty management, supply chain visibility, inventory tracking, reporting to regulatory bodies, logistics, point of sale and project workflow.
Manufacturing is uniquely suited to DIY custom apps because of its workforce’s technical training in engineering concepts and methodologies. Some engineers may have even experimented with different programming languages to automate their work or to do analytics, so they’re not completely unfamiliar with software development; it’s just not their primary role.
“What’s fascinating about that from my experience is these folks tend to be really effective in this kind of platform,” said Mike Schiraldi, solution architect team lead at Mendix, Boston. “They’re not bogged down by all the esoteric syntax of a given language and they are also in a unique position to understand a business problem, where there’s a gap in that process, and how to fix it.” Mendix was acquired by Siemens in 2018.
At Flowserve, Irving, Texas, which manufactures and services fluid motion control solutions for the oil and gas industry, employees have used a low-code platform from Appian, Tysons, Va., to create apps for a variety of purposes, including a service center portal for Flowserve’s pump repair process. Using the app, an employee creates an order entry and then uses it to record and manage necessary related information about inspection, price quotation, coordination of physical labor and parts needed; review and approval; and finally shipment of an invoice.
For Flowserve’s purposes, there is no off-the-shelf software available, said Malcolm Ross, deputy CTO and vice president of product strategy at Appian.
“There’s software for an inventory management system and HR resource management, but nothing to combine the two—the labor and the parts—together,” Ross said.
Low-code platforms enable business users like the employees at Flowserve to develop tailor-made solutions to help automate and organize processes.
“Any low-code user who is developing a custom application is going to have intimate knowledge about the problem and process that the application is targeting,” said Tejas Gadhia, head evangelist for platform development at Zoho Corp., Pleasanton, Calif. “This is the core advantage of low-code platforms: they keep development in-house, as opposed to users having to articulate their needs to an IT team or outside developer.”
In addition to enabling app development, the platforms also allow creators to make updates to applications as their processes and requirements evolve based on feedback from users. Vendors vary in whether the apps can be stored in a portfolio internal to an enterprise or in a commercial app store, but updates can be pushed out via a link in SMS or an email.
Agile App Development
“This turns out to be the most important thing if you want to do truly agile and innovative app development: Get it in the hands of some users, get their feedback and produce an iteration,” said Praveen Seshadri, CEO of AppSheet, Seattle. “Truly, the number of iterations that you can do with quality feedback is what lets your app convert to something useful and successful for your users. The speed of iterations is what drives success.”
While developing and using an app is valuable in and of itself because it drives productivity, at some point manufacturers realize there’s additional value in the platform that lies in building many apps. Once they get to building many applications, that realization is often driven by the analytics team that sees it’s not just that the applications are driving productivity, they’re also collecting data that can be used by a plant’s ERP, MES or PLM software.
“This is like gold,” says Seshadri. “It gives insight into all these things which we did not have insight on before.”
With that data, factories can do analyses of which parts of their manufacturing line are doing better than others and where there are more issues than elsewhere. They can identify where opportunity lies.
“So, it drives strategic thinking,” he said. “How can this make our company fundamentally more competitive?”
Efficiency Case Study
Elijah Magrane, operations director at Tutti Gourmet, a healthier snacks maker in Hudson, Quebec, Canada, started using AppSheet about 16 months ago for doing inventory.
The plant used to do inventory based on physical counts which were then entered manually into spreadsheets. Errors were common and some things were overlooked. With the platform, though, Magrane was able to create an inventory app that includes the kind of formulas and calculations common to spreadsheet programs and has since added bar and QR codes, so counts are automated.
“Implementing a barcode system through AppSheet, along with automated restock notices, have increased our efficiency and ensured that we are always capable of fulfilling orders and producing at capacity,” Magrane said.
The apps Magrane has created—about 40 in all—are handy for day-to-day operations like tabulating employees’ time, keeping lists of approved suppliers, completing inspection checklists, managing warehouse inventory, tracking product distribution, and more.
“To be frank, where I’m at right now I have a fully functioning ERP with AppSheet,” he said (see graphic on page 63).
Because the platform is in the cloud, Magrane’s boss can access inventory, project management and R&D apps when he’s on the road. At the enterprise, the new sales manager can track how long it’s been since a store has gotten a delivery and make a sales call if necessary.
“Low code is to code like a prefabricated home is to a home built from scratch.”
And when the firm is being audited for traceability, Magrane can easily access information instead of rifling through binders.
“Our accounting system does not have traceability for finished goods,” Magrane said. “Prior to AppSheet we were recording manually in Excel. This took an enormous amount of time and errors were high. Since using AppSheet, the traceability workflow has been cut in more than half and errors are nearly non-existent.”
Updatability is Critical
The biggest differentiator among DIY app platforms may be whether the tech-savvy creator can add some of his own code.
Generally, no-code solutions offer 100 percent point-and-click application development and are targeted directly at business users and people with no to minimal programming knowledge. Most of these tools are geared to be spreadsheet replacements or enhancers. AppSheet is a no-code platform.
Low-code tools also offer mostly point-and-click configuration; however, they provide some advanced capabilities through scripting language to execute complex business logic. These tools are targeted toward users who have a bit more technical knowledge but are not quite at the developer level. Appian, Mendix and Zoho Creator are low-code platforms.
“Low code is to code like a prefabricated home is to a home built from scratch,” said Jon Scolamiero, manager of architecture and governance at Mendix. “No code is essentially a manufactured ‘double-wide.’”
No code and low code aren’t the only differentiators. Security varies by vendor.
“It is always a good idea to check out a vendor’s security page to see their policies and procedures for how they handle and manage data,” said Gadhia.
Evaluators can ask vendors for details on certifications such as ISO 27001, which focuses on quality and continuous improvement for information management systems, and SOC 2 Type II, a standard for controls that directly relate to the security, availability, processing integrity, confidentiality and privacy at an organization that provides software as a service.
The core value proposition of low code and no code is not just the composition of the apps, it’s also the ongoing maintenance and upgrade in lifecycles of the platform if the apps are used on mobile devices or through the web, said Ross. That’s where people often encounter problems with enterprise software.
“It’s the idea of once I build it, it’s all fine,” he said. “But just because it works with a mobile operating system today doesn’t mean it’s going to work next year when iOS 13 or 14 or 15 comes out.”
Ross adds a similar caution for web-based apps. Web standards are evolving every day, and just because an app works with Edge, Safari, Bing or Chrome today doesn’t mean it’s going to work with them tomorrow. An important aspect to explore with the vendor of the low-code platform is whether it’s delivering the software that obscures the requirements of maintenance and has embedded future-proofing into the platform’s capabilities.
“As a parallel, I often ask people, ‘What version of Google do you use,’” Ross said. “Google updates their search menu and their web browser search literally every single day, but we don’t think of it as a version, we think of it as a service. That’s where we want to be as far as how we digest these platforms as a service.”
Scolamiero said platform shoppers should also ask if the platform is cloud native, meaning does it adhere to core principles and architectures that facilitate it not only existing in one cloud but executing process and procedure in any cloud as well as on premise and integrating with all of that.
“We have a hybrid world where software executes internally in very secure systems that have no Internet access, but it also needs to execute out in the broader system of the cloud and the Internet,” he said.
Ultimately, the most important thing to ask when shopping for a platform is whether it helps business solve problems and unlock productivity and innovation, Seshadri said. Every line of business has this pressure to innovate and improve, whether it’s inspection on a factory floor or inventory in a warehouse that needs to be automated.
“Let’s say you build an app to inspect equipment on a factory floor,” said Seshadri. “It pulls data on which equipment you have from your ERP and captures inspection info. If there’s damage, you can take a photo and notify somebody to make the repair. Every morning, management needs a report of what’s damaged.”