Sometimes history repeats itself and we are finding that new digital technologies are making it attractive and maybe even necessary to develop custom manufacturing systems solutions? For years we have advocated that companies focus on their core business competencies and leave the software development to expert best in class software companies. There are many horror stories of companies that are stuck spending million maintaining and supporting custom built software that is running their critical operations. Why then are we again talking about custom built operational software solutions?

A new digital push

Digital technologies and the Industry 4.0 paradigm are making it easier to build, or compose, interactive digital content and even complete software solution. I see companies once again opting to develop custom software to solve their manufacturing systems needs. Is this because with a “revolution” there is apatite to create something new, the technologies are new we need to try them out, or is this truly something to consider? Does it bring value and if so how?

I believe there are a number of forces at play that are causing this to happen.

  • Emerging digital technologies specifically cloud based SaaS solutions provide user friendly ways to solve some specific problems like analytics and integration with very quick ramp-up times. I.e. you don’t need a lot software development skills. This is also known as democratization of technology is a very important aspect of digital transformation that is directly linked to the how it support productivity increase.
  • There is a real business need to get the promised productivity gains from these digital technologies. In other words organization have allocated money and people to get things moving in their digital transformation.
  • The new generation of workforce comes from the digital age (i.e. digital natives) and are used to in simple words, just download an app for that. They are confronted with what they see as antiquated software systems that are not really user friendly and their reaction is to find another app.
  • The new digital technologies in general are human centered – they are developed to solve (and support) what we as people do, where as traditional business software is developed to automate a process.
  • The current solution landscape of available digital technologies, in what we know of as the manufacturing system domain, is very fragmented and somewhat immature. Yes there are pieces of it specifically in the Cloud part that are further along but in general no.

History repeats itself – but not really!

So, is this a case of history repeating itself? Will we see a resurgence of home grown solution that we will in a few years pay dearly to replace with available software form industry suppliers? I am not great at predictions and certainly not a futurist but I think we can apply some logic here, combined with clear trends that are underway, and say; yes I think so. Of course their will be differences, there will be some level of custom software being built but at the same time there are some forces at play that are different from what we have seen in the past. The rate of software development and how fast it is maturing is much greater that it was in the past, and the new technological landscape for manufacturing system will consist of a network of solution. The new breed of manufacturing software platforms also democratize the integration of systems so gone are the days where there is benefit to standardize on one vendor with specific monolithic systems for each department or business function.

I think the biggest difference is the ease at which software platforms allow the customization of technology. This “democratization” is so wide spread that using anything that can’t be formed exactly to what we need will feel constraining and old, and therein lies the big difference to what has happened in the past. The future digital factory will be supported by a network of Cloud and Fog (or Edge Computing) software components that will have been put together from the bottom up. They will develop and mature over time thru emergence rather than a top-down design and development process. Think about that – if this is true so much of our current approaches will not work (GAMPISA-95/88, etc.)!

Editorial note: This article is a revised version of an eponymous published piece by the same author on his personal blog (see The return of custom built manufacturing software)