Globalization is driving intense competitive environment in manufacturing. Software, in particular, IIoT, is now driving company strategy, whereas only a decade ago, the company drove software development strategy. For example, “Made in China 2025” aims to move China away from producing cheap, low-quality products to providing higher value products utilizing the latest in IoT software platform. A similar story in India, with their “Make in India” initiative that promotes best in class manufacturing infrastructure using IIoT. These examples are not so different from what GE started in 2015, with their “Brilliant Factory” concept. Subsequently, terms like “data lake,” “data mart,” “middleware,” “fog computing” became famous buzz words with manufacturing engineers attempting to implement IIoT software in their factory operations.
According to the global market intelligence firm IDC (Dec.2018), the worldwide technology spending on IIoT will reach $1.2T by 2022, with a CAGR of 13.6% over the 2017- 2022 period. This global race for digitization & connectivity has seen exponential growth in companies that offer solutions at every level of the IIoT architecture stack – from Plant Floor connectivity to a suite of Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) to the Enterprise level insights that use Business Intelligence (BI) tools.
With all the buzz words and a myriad of IIoT solutions being offered, it can be confusing and difficult to judge the best solution that fits your organizations need. To complicate it further, many manufacturing companies have legacy in-house software development teams, which makes it even more crucial to evaluate whether to purchase third party software solution or to develop the software with in-house talent (make vs. buy).
Through my experience of having faced a similar challenge, I set out to establish a comprehensive yet straightforward guide to help facilitate a systematic method to evaluate the various software solution options that when used, will in most cases, drive to the best decision for the organization.
I call these the six “pillars” of evaluation. Of course, you should decide how to weight each category based on the priorities & needs of your organization. So, here they are, not in any particular order of importance.
Pillar 1: Maintainability The ease with which a software system can be modified to correct faults, improve performance or other attributes, or adapt to a changing environment.
Every IIoT software must undergo routine maintenance to eliminate “bugs,” or to change or add additional features from users after “go-live.” If such changes cannot be done and with relative ease for your coding team, it will result in frustration from users and eventual demise, especially as the lines of code increase in size and complexity.
Pillar 2: Scalability The capability of a system, network, or process to handle a growing amount of work or its potential to be enlarged to accommodate that growth.
In a rush to implement an IIoT (MES) system on the plant floor, teams focus on Proof-Of-Concept (POC) result, using the flexible system to measure progress. But in so doing, many times the schema is not designed for expansion and scale-up. This causes much re-construction & potential delays later in the development cycle, as the trial software is then used to expand across the organization.
Pillar 3: Dependability Measure of a software system’s availability and reliability.
"The ease with which a software system can be modified to correct faults, improve performance or other attributes, or adapt to a changing environment"
In these times of lean production, nothing short of 99.9999% should be the availability and reliability targets. The software cannot be the reason for production delays or machine stop. Adequate backup and risk mitigation strategies must be implemented.
Pillar 4: Usability The extent to which a software can be used by specified users to achieve defined goals with effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction in a specified context of use.
You can have the most advanced algorithms and sophisticated UI (or GUI), but if it does not meet the user’s needs or expectations, or the user cannot understand how to use or interpret the data, it will die a premature death. Worse still, the IoT team will lose credibility to provide useful tools.
Pillar 5: Cyber Security Intended to protect software against malicious attack and other hacker risks so that the software continues to function correctly under such potential risks.
Without appropriate protection against malware or virus attacks, the MES will be vulnerable to unauthorized hacking, leading to potentially huge losses & sensitive data breach. Many times, the cybersecurity execution plan is an after-thought.
Pillar 6: Total cost Includes software licenses, user fees, installation and integration charges, and annual maintenance fees.
In particular, if you decide to purchase third party vendor software, you must read the fine print of the contract. Beyond the standard license and user fees, there could be many hidden fees. For example, site license fee, developer fee (separate from user fee), early contract termination fee, data storage, and usage fee, automatic renewal (SaaS), maintenance and support cost and so on. Be careful before you sign off on the contract.
The devil is definitely in the fine print details.
Each of these pillars can be defined in more granularity, depending on the priorities and needs of your organization. Providing weights for each can further sharpen the evaluations. Then, rate the various software solutions against these pillars, and more often than not, the total tally will most likely give you your best solution. If nothing else, this exercise will, at the very least, help to calibrate and align the needs of your organization.