A pair of worker stand over a tablet in a factory. Getty Images, Thinkstock

Citizen Developers on the Shop Floor

With low-code/no-code software, workers can create in-house apps without having to learn coding.

The contrast is immediately apparent.

Up in the executive suite, individuals and teams focus on computer displays, using sophisticated software to analyze and tweak performance. Meanwhile, on the factory floor, the men and women who actually make the products are, more often than not, working as their predecessors did, manually adjusting machinery to adjust the processes to increase quality and output.

Now there’s a new class of software development program that’s rewriting the balance and empowering the rest of your workforce. Called low-code/no-code, it puts powerful tools in the hands of workers— call them “citizen developers” — so they can quickly create effective apps without having to learn coding. 

It’s ideally matched to the IoT, which makes it possible, for the first time, for your entire workforce to simultaneously share access to data about things, whether on the assembly line or after they are in the field (see “Four Essential Truths for IoT Success,”  IW, Jan. 4, 2019)

Low-code does require some coding expertise, and is typically suited for programs that need to work companywide.

This column will focus on the more extreme and advanced segment: no-code, which is based on commercial platforms from companies such as Mendix, Betty Blocks and Kony and doesn’t not require any involvement by your IT department or outside programmers, saving both time and money.  Typically, a citizen developer arranges drag-and-drop modular components to create the app, which operates in the cloud.

No-code solutions are also extremely flexible and easily updated.  Because they are compiled from modular components, rather than hand-coded, making a change simply requires switching an old component for a new one, and the change can be implemented in hours.  Another advantage is that the application can be quickly and automatically tested.

What no-code requires is exactly what your rank-and-file workforce and first-tier supervisors have in abundance: years of knowledge about how your assembly line works — or doesn’t.

Two examples from a Dutch firm, Betty Blocks (which bills itself as the “world’s first truly no-code platform”), should be of interest to any company because they deal with workplace safety. 

One, MySepp (appropriately enough for a worker-developed app, it’s named for Nick van Sepp, one of its developers) is for reporting on dangerous workplace conditions. According to Obdam, the application allows employees to report unsafe situations quickly and intuitively from a smartphone. Entering the report immediately sends a text message to the supervisor, who can then assign out the task.

A Betty Blocks solution developed in the Netherlands is intended to make construction sites safer. Fourteen companies helped create standardized safety instructions when entering job sites. The Generic Gate Instruction application (GPI), automatically notifies  companies and workers about the standardized safety instructions, in 17 languages. . The project’s aim is for every Dutch construction site to adopt the protocols and app, with a goal of reducing construction accidents to zero.  The plan is easily scaled to include new sites and companies.

A Massachusetts firm, Tulip, had its origins in the MIT Media Lab. According to CEO and co-founder Natan Linder it’s all about bottom-up empowerment and democratizing access to technology throughout the workforce:

“In recent years some of the world’s largest manufacturers have made significant strides in improving shop-floor productivity and yield by democratizing access to shop-floor technology,” Linder said in a World Economic Forum white paper on Industry 4.0. Manufacturing app platforms, he continued, “allow manufacturing engineers to easily build shop-floor apps without the need to write code. This enables an organization’s manufacturing problems to be addressed by engineers, the stakeholders that actually understand these problems.”

One of the company’s clients that benefitted directly from factory-floor no-code empowerment is  Orlando-based Nautique Boat Company, which manufactures a range of wake boats.  Much of the assembly is still by hand, and a video on the Tulip site shows some of the benefits:

  • They can track, in real-time, what each of their 89 upholstery shop workers is doing, and the 5,600 parts they use.
  • Nautique used to manually record stop-watch readings on paper to assess   production and look for ways to improve, but that there simply wasn’t enough consistent data to make data-driven decisions. Now, with Tulip, they capture data with sensors on variables such as who did what process and how long it took. As a result, Nautique has improved the integrity of the employee review process, because it’s now analytics-based. The employees have responded positively, increasing productivity.

John Rymer, vice-president and principal analyst at Forrester, estimates the low code/no code market is currently worth $4 billion, and growing by 50% annually. Given potential benefits such as development speed and lower cost and, most important, providing a simple way for companies to capture and systematize the years of applied knowledge their factory-floor staffs have developed, that estimate may be conservative.

In fact, Betty Blocks draws a line in the sand in its marketing materials with a bold prediction: “Do you like big, hairy & audacious goals? This is ours: By 2023, anyone can build an application.  … Yes, everyone.” Wow.

W. David Stephenson, principal of Stephenson Strategies (Millis, Massachusetts), is an IoT consultant and thought leader. His The Future Is Smart (HarperCollins Leadership), is one of the first books on IoT strategy. He has been active in efforts to democratize data for more than a decade.

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