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Unless everything is deceptive, we are currently experiencing a veritable renaissance of industrial software. Not since the beginnings of the CAx industry over 30 years ago have there been so many start-ups of software companies. The buzzword is “composable.” At the same time, there is also a lot of movement among the well-known IT providers. My series of articles in the background section will explore this spirit of optimism and the question of what is really new and not just old wine in new bottles.

IT as we all knew it was often costly for industry and less effective than hoped. This was even more true for individual adaptations to company-specific processes and requirements, because each new version of the standard software had to be adapted again. It is hard to imagine that an era of composable software is now dawning, i.e. software from a wide variety of manufacturers that can be easily put together. But this is exactly what is emerging.

Understanding the essential aspects of this development – not the technical details – is what this series is for. I address more than 15 old and new vendors for this purpose. For paid exclusive articles about their respective solutions, but also for consideration in my neutral articles like this introductory one and the one that will be at the end.

Open standards have long been desired by users as well as by small development teams or individual developers. But until recently, it looked like there was no way around the fact that all software had to run on any of the major platforms to be successful. Now there are signs that this need no longer apply. Experts are talking about container software based on open source web technology standards like Kubernetes.

Recently, there has even been a lot of talk about the possible replacement of monolithic IT solutions with open systems. After all, 60% of all new Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) solutions, analyst firm Gartner predicts in a May 2022 study, will already consist of composable components by 2025. In the foreword to an IDG study, Sharam Dadashnia of Scheer PAS speaks in general terms of composable applications on a path to the composable enterprise, and thus sees much greater things on the horizon behind the current development.

The fact is that both users and manufacturers of industrial software are dealing with an infrastructure of the kind that has become established on the Internet and in the cloud. In individual cases, it does not matter whether work is done in the public, private or edge cloud or on a device or server. What matters is the infrastructure behind it and the ease with which it can be put together on the basis of recognized standards.

For decades we have been familiar with the complaint that solutions are sometimes offered on the part of IT providers, for which the user then has to search for the right problem. This time it is the other way around. The industry has a big problem for which it urgently needs a solution.

Problem seeks solution – and not vice versa

The problem: In the manufacturing industry as well as in plant engineering and operation, software already plays a leading role today. All innovations, indeed the competitiveness of entire companies, depend on how good one’s own software is in product and process, what new business it enables, how clearly the company differentiates itself from the competition in precisely these respects.

Software development is therefore now a core competence also in industry. Gone are the days when companies such as the major automotive manufacturers and their suppliers concentrated on mechanics and left the subject area of E/E/SW, i.e. electrics, electronics and software, to the suppliers. Every manufacturing company from Bosch and Daimler to Siemens and ThyssenKrupp will sooner or later be a software company at its core. And even more than the large producers, the small and medium-sized companies will be forced to focus on their software strength: After all, they are usually the suppliers of innovation for their customers in large-scale industry, and they will need innovative software above all in the future.

But with the current type of software and software development, this change is not realistic for either the big players or the SMEs. Development within the framework of a monolithic platform takes too long; the IT skills required are too in-depth; and the costs, from licenses to personnel, are too high. And at the same time, the requirements from all sides change daily, and in addition to the functional ones, issues of compliance, security and sustainability are added with the highest priority. The installed IT landscapes are noticeably reaching their limits.

A second problem is directly related to this: The path from hardware producer to provider of sustainable, product-based services, often referred to by the collective term Internet of Things (IoT) or Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), necessarily leads via the use of data from production and product operation. However, terabytes and petabytes of data every second as a resource can only be collected with agile processes and processed and used with the help of big data analytics and artificial intelligence algorithms. And with software that creates new value from it in near real time. This, too, cannot be achieved with traditional IT solutions alone, or only to a limited extent.

An era of APIs?

The many new ideas that use familiar and proven web technology for new solutions in industry come at just the right time. What distinguishes them from traditional systems? Corresponding software is encapsulated and open for communication with any other software via an application programming interface (API). Encapsulation also leads to greater stability, because the failure of one app can leave other systems unaffected and also does not require downtime because of an update.

Composable software consists of apps encapsulated in containers that work very well together via APIs. (Image Sendler)

Web-based software is flexible and easily portable because it carries with it the services and even data repositories formerly provided by the operating system. It is, so to speak, indifferent to what it runs on and what data it uses. It is also often easier to program, for example in a scripting language, or the programming can be automated with the aid of low-code tools.

With such software, we now speak of container technology. Like the standardization of shipping containers in hardware, containerization helps to use any content on any basis, in this case computers. It is as simple as the shipping container in the port can easily be switched to rail or road transport. However, there is a positive difference: The software container is not physically limited like the hardware container. It can grow to almost any size and, above all, can be used simultaneously as often as required. Scaling is the keyword.

Kubernetes has established itself as the basis in recent years: developed by Google, donated as open source to the new Cloud Native Cumputing Foundation (CNCF) in 2013 and now supported by all major platform providers. This allows container apps to be clustered and orchestrated with a uniform methodology. Whether the standards will still be the same in five years, whether the technology will get different names, which programming language is optimal in detail, all this nobody can predict. What is important is flexibility, ease of portability and the agility in app development that is now possible. For IT and service providers as well as in the industry itself.

Not a replacement but a supplement

This – for the industry – new type of software and its infrastructure affects all types of software. All established systems, from CAD/CAM and other engineering software to production planning and control, MES and MOM, CRM and ERP to PLM and everything in between, get competition and/or support. What has been accomplished with these established solutions is a lot. What could not be accomplished with them may very soon be accomplished by an app. Whether this app will then be competition, whether it will be made usable integrated into conventional software, whether it will be a universally welcome addition separately in good cooperation – that remains to be seen.

What will almost certainly not happen is a rewriting of the large monolithic systems as web-based container software. That’s something a vendor should have tackled ten years ago. Contact Software has done that and with Contact Elements now has a modern alternative to the former core product Cim Database. But opening up the monolithic software through APIs that are easily accessible to everyone and allowing the large systems to be used in combination with container software – that could become a major market demand on the established vendors in the next few years. It may not prove to be pro-competitive to ignore or even torpedo this demand.

SAP, for example, has been trying for some years, not without success, to stand up to the competition from the cloud such as Salesforce with its own web-based solutions. But with the old approach: the customer should use all of SAP’s solutions also in the cloud. In the summer, the FAZ commented on recurring falls in the SAP share price by saying that the new solution with the old strategy was apparently not being received by the market. That hits the nail on the head. And it applies to all providers of monolithic solutions. The opening up must not only affect the software and its infrastructure, but also the entire offering and the relationship to the competition. The new is coming at all corners anyway. Whether it is better in individual cases than a corresponding offer from a traditional manufacturer is decided by the customer.

Multi-Cloud and Agnostik

But if everything new is based on web technology, i.e. on what we know from the cloud and the Internet, then doesn’t every one of these new applications have to run on one of the major cloud platforms and is not independent after all?

A buzzword that you hear again and again in this context is agnosticism. In religion, an agnostic does not believe there is an explanation for the existence of supernatural beings or gods. In software, it means that the new app doesn’t really care which cloud it runs on.

The principle of encapsulated software is the same on all platforms. Each provider opens it up a bit differently and offers different components in the process, but Kubernetes support, for example, is now a matter of course on all platforms. The differences lie in the convenience and performance, the security, the locality of the server farms used, the additional services available such as AI libraries and corresponding algorithms.

So, app developers choose a provider among the so-called hyperscalers. Then the app, which can be launched via a URL on the Internet, is executed on its cloud infrastructure. But everything that is used here by this cloud provider can be replaced within days or a few weeks by corresponding own services or those of another cloud provider.

We remember: The replacement of the CAD system CATIA from Dassault Systèmes with Siemens NX at Daimler in 2012 was planned for three years and, to the surprise of the experts, was actually implemented within the planned time. Now we are talking about days and weeks when replacing an entire infrastructure platform.

Ultimately, the decisive factor here is also what the customer wants. If he prefers to work with a particular cloud platform, then the provider of the new application will certainly not want to make him abandon it and switch. He will ensure that the new app also runs on the customer’s preferred platform.

The new web services come encapsulated as containers. (Image Sendler)

Who is offering what?

Unlike the first wave of industry digitalization, the current renaissance does not identify a specific application area, for example, in which most new offerings occur. Every type of application is possible with Web technology, in every area, in every industry, in every process. The only certain thing might be that most new offerings are services, not sellable software products.

Almost everything in the digital world can be used as a service in the future. The software itself, that is Software as a Service (SaaS); the platform and the tools with which one wants to develop software, that is Platform as a Service (PaaS); and as a basis the infrastructure with servers, storage capacities and other resources needed to run applications, and that is Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS).

We already know these terms from the nineties, when the term Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) emerged, which, by the way, like “Composable” Software now, came from Gartner. Service-oriented architecture according to the rules standardized on the Web could be called the new software world. The API becomes the decisive link, and encapsulation includes data and runtime libraries in addition to business logic.

The fact that Gartner and others are currently mainly talking about the possible end of monolithic MES or MOM solutions is probably related to the fact that in industry the most important cost block is still production. Consequently, the first thing industry looks for is cost savings through production optimization.

In fact, Cybus, German Edge Cloud and Scheer PAS are currently very active in this environment. They offer web services with connectors to various systems and machines for networking the data of machines from different manufacturers, making it visible and manageable on a dashboard, and using it directly for production optimization. And the flexibility and agility that is likely to quickly overwhelm a monolithic system, for example, to quickly incorporate a sequence of movements of a particular robot arm into an analysis of a process step.

The question of how quickly and easily the digital twin can not only be displayed on any device with the original accuracy, but can actually be used for any simulations, calculations and analyses, is also answered by a start-up at Fraunhofer IGD in Darmstadt called Threedy with a web service.

Salesforce and others for ERP, encoway for CPQ (Configure Price Quote) – there are so many providers of new services on the way that I’m sure I only know about a tiny fraction so far. I’d love to include as many companies as possible in this series. Please get in touch!

Things are getting exciting once again in industrial software. This is particularly encouraging because it gives us hope that Germany as an industrial location will be able to maintain and even expand its leading role in the world.