Coding illustration

High returns on low code

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The cost of bespoke software to improve an organisation’s efficiency can be hefty, even negate the savings they are intended to make. There is another way that can be cheaper, quicker and provide a better end solution.

Murata Power Systems designs and makes electrical power elements through its nine engineering design centres and four manufacturing sites in China, the US and UK. In November 2019 the company announced it would in future take the progressive step of creating IT applications for its own use by means of a ‘low-code’ development capability.

The essential features of this approach are that it replaces lengthy manual processes carried out by highly specialised IT development staff with a much simpler methodology involving easy-to-use graphical ‘drag-and-drop’ routines that can be carried out if necessary by the staff who will actually use the resulting software. The result is highly compressed development timescales for software systems that will be focused on the automation of genuinely important business processes.

Wayne McKay, director of information technology for Murata Power Systems (MPS), says that an initial exploration of the technique enabled MPS to develop, alongside its enterprise software partner OutSystems, “new workflow processes that integrate with our ERP [enterprise resource planning] system, including warehouse inventory requisition workflow, manufacturing shop floor label printing and a manufacturing work order operation move process”.

Even in that first project MPS “easily achieved a 50 per cent time-to-effort saving, and we expect that this will improve in the future as we reuse objects created within these initial applications”.

Consequently McKay reports that the company has already embarked on its next low-code software development project, in which the targeted efficiency benchmarks are even more ambitious. These involve “picking, packing and shipping” operations at a warehouse in China, including containerisation, label printing and business-to-business data exchanges. He says that the low-code approach is “expected to deliver a ‘time-to-value’ advantage of four-to-six times compared to traditional application development methods”. In addition, not only will initial application development be “significantly quicker”, but the subsequent time required to maintain or change applications will also reduce.

Flexibility in the choice of device in which the final application can run is, McKay states, something else the approach facilitates. “Low-code enables mobile and web development from one platform,” he confirms. He indicates that the approach may well now be extended to the development of fundamental manufacturing support software. “Murata is considering OutSystems for the development of its next-​generation manufacturing execution system (MES) to provide greater task automation and data collection,” he confirms.

Is the applicability of the low-code development technique valid across wider areas of industry? Someone who believes so, again on the basis of direct experience, is Geoff Nunan, principal consultant with Spruik, an IT consultancy operation specialising in ‘smart factory innovation’.

Nunan says that the key point about the low-code approach is that it can enable “strategic innovation” that is targeted at a company’s own specific objectives. He confirms that Spruik works with companies in the food and beverage, pharmaceutical and manufacturing sectors and can report substantial results in all areas.

Recently, for instance, Nunan reports that Spruik worked with what he describes as a “large US plastics manufacturer” to use low-code to automate a range of manufacturing-related tasks that had previously required intervention by personnel to carry out visual checking and manual data recording. He says this involved monitoring real-time consumption of raw materials including, for instance, recording real-time production of work-in-progress and finished products, batch genealogy reporting, recipe management and managing the setpoints for over 80,000 variables. The project also involved automating various quality deviation and downtime reporting tasks such as the generation of alerts when process deviations occurred, managing subsequent investigation and reporting, monitoring of equipment state and recording equipment performance.

However, says Nunan, the most notable aspect of the project lies in the comparison between the successful low-code delivery of these objectives and a previous failed attempt to achieve them through conventional means. In that first attempt he reports that the company spent $14m over two years for no result and then achieved its targets using the low-code approach in just six months for an outlay of $0.5m.

In general, observes Nunan, the use of low-code in a discrete manufacturing context will tend to produce the best results when it focuses on the MES software that sits between a company-wide ERP and shopfloor control systems. “The closer you get to actual machines the more specific the requirements become and the more tailored software to support them needs to be,” he explains. “But using standard software packages simply gets you to the same level as everybody else.”

Nunan also confirms that the ease-of-use of low-code techniques means that software writing need no longer be the province of specialist IT personnel, but he also stresses that this does not make redundant the idea of a separate IT department in a company. Instead it changes the relationship of a corporate IT department with the rest of the business. “It puts the development of software directly into hands of in-house continuous improvement teams so they can pilot a proof concept and a potential solution very quickly in a way that is governed by IT but not implemented by IT,” he states. “So what low-code does is make corporate IT relevant to continuous improvement, which was never possible before.”

Is there a danger that if companies write highly customised software for themselves they might create closed systems incapable of communicating with those of other businesses, such as materials suppliers? Nunan acknowledges the possibility but says that providing the work “follows international standards for data models and integration” then that risk is obviated. He mentions the ISA-95 standard covering the integration of enterprise and control systems as an example.

Nevertheless perhaps the most fundamental point that Nunan makes is simply that in order to implement low-code software development companies first of all need to realise that they actually do have the ability to develop software to their own requirements. “The skillsets are just not as they were previously,” he states.

There is also confirmation from elsewhere that business and industry are starting to appreciate the potential of low-code software writing. The Gartner consultancy, for instance, published a report in August 2019 indicating that by 2024 three-quarters of large enterprises will be using at least four low-code development tools for IT application development. In turn that will mean that when that point is reached low-code application development will account for more than 65 per cent of application development activity.

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