Back in the heyday of integrated business systems, the manufacturing CIO was faced with a relatively simple choice: which big ERP vendor to select and what database technology to run the system on? Because all was on premise, there was total control over the environment. System upgrades could be planned far in advance. Patch management was a headache but quite manageable by implementing three separate servers: one for development, one for testing and the third for the live system. These were the days of large integrated ERP applications. Big ‘gorilla ERP’ put you and your IT service provider on an expensive treadmill, constantly implementing new features, upgrades and versions. The result, over decades, was an inflexible and highly complicated system. While the business initially benefited from new efficiencies, these were hardly a sustained advantage. After all, most competitors probably implemented an equivalent ERP system.
Fast forward to the present and the situation has become even more complex. Manufacturers are under even more pressure to be competitive, increase customer service levels, reduce costs and address sustainability concerns. Has your cumbersome ‘gorilla software’ become a disadvantage to your business and do you now feel unable to adapt quickly enough to fast changing requirements?
Application swarms bring agility
The gorilla business systems from the past are not well-known enablers of agility. Companies now need to change and take advantage of quickly evolving technology platforms using shared cloud infrastructure and services from third parties located outside the factory fence. Instead of a landscape dominated by a few giant gorillas, swarms of small, specialised applications (think of bees) are emerging from the clouds on the horizon. And they might sting you if you don’t pay attention. These services comprise a system that can adapt, evolve and update in size and shape, while still fulfilling its primary purpose. These microservices (as they are called in the world of software architects) can act in unison to communicate data and information inside companies, between companies and along entire supply chains.
The vertical stack of system levels in manufacturing is well established in the factory. The levels (from bottom to top) are level 0 (physical process), level 1 (sensors), level 2 (monitoring and control), level 3 (MES/MOM) and level 4 (business planning and logistics). This standard is best known as ISA-95 and covers enterprise system to control system integration. ISA-95 can be used to define the interfaces and bring structure to the communications between the layers. But integrating ISA-95 into microservices will prove difficult because the underlying architecture and concepts are actually worlds apart. Deciding where to invest in this regard has become the new dilemma for the manufacturing CIO.
Services of varying complexity
Service-oriented architectures have more recently evolved to envision the factory as comprising several services of varying complexity. The software services are themselves hosted in the cloud, on edge devices or embedded in field devices. Large complex systems are thereby broken down into smaller, more manageable semi-autonomous components by combining these services in various ways. Unlike the gorilla monolithic systems of the past, these architectures are technology agnostic. Open-source-led innovation and adoption has driven costs down and also ensured that most of the previous proprietary strangleholds have been broken.
The trajectory of evolving software architectures has not stopped. Business software continues to be broken down into components. Akin to swarms of bees, the individual components share a common language securely run on common platforms, which are managed and upgraded without breaking the entire system. If you have not yet heard of DevOps, Kubernetes and Docker, perhaps it is an idea to read about these techniques and technologies next time you get a chance. I became intrigued by the possibilities of Docker when in less than 30 minutes of experimenting I downloaded, set up and connected to Microsoft SQL server on my Apple Mac Desktop running entirely and autonomously inside a small (<2 Gb) container. A short two years ago I would have not seen this coming.
Gartner defines a microservice as a service-oriented application component that is tightly scoped, strongly encapsulated, loosely coupled, independently deployable and independently scalable.
I believe that the CEO of General Electric once famously said that if you went to bed last night as an industrial company, you would likely wake up today as a software and analytics company. Clearly, the manufacturing CIO has to be on top of these microservices, how they operate, how in reality they are developed, tested and maintained in a DevOps environment and how they will enable the business to become more agile, more competitive, cost-efficient and sustainable. These are pragmatic questions that in my view are orders of magnitude more complex (and exciting) than deciding which ERP vendor to work with and which database to run on.
In closing and as a reality check, remember that micro services and their cloud-based platforms are still evolving. Many manufacturing companies are struggling to survive, let alone experiment with bleeding edge software architectures. But the trends are already being firmly established in adjacent industries like finance and entertainment.
Understanding exactly how microservices might impact your ERP and manufacturing system strategy from now on is critical, especially if you are the leader responsible for IT/OT in the business.
About Gavin Halse
Gavin Halse is a chemical process engineer who has been involved in the manufacturing sector since mid-1980. He founded a software business in 1999 which grew to develop specialised applications for mining, energy and process manufacturing in several countries. Gavin is most interested in the effective use of IT in industrial environments and now consults part time to manufacturing and software companies around the effective use of IT to achieve business results.
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