Every manufacturing site is striving for continuous improvement to pursue manufacturing excellence. The core idea behind continuous improvements in manufacturing is to engage the existing workforce to come up with solutions for existing problems. In fact, if you ask front-line operators on the shop-floor what their challenges are, they not only can name a detailed list of problems, but most often already can provide detailed solution concepts.
In today’s production environments, such solutions require the use of software-based systems. And in turn, the development of such solutions typically require the involvement of IT professionals, resulting in bottlenecks for the implementation of new IT-based solutions.
This is where low-code application platforms come into play. The guiding principles behind low-code platforms is to allow the rapid creation of software applications without manually writing software-code. Thus, such platforms empower front-line workers to create solutions to their challenges, without the need for software coding skills. Instead, domain experts can create customized applications to solve their individual problems in a very short time. As such, low-code application platforms enable manufacturing experts to create flexible and scalable applications for different device types, such as smartphones, tablets or browser applications for work stations. This ensures that manufacturers leverage their domain expertise to the fullest extent and give control back to workers on the shop floor.
A low-code application development platform (LCDP) is software that offers an easy-to-use application creation environment to develop software applications without creating hand-written software code. Instead, pre-configured software function blocks can be configured by using a graphical user interface, often involving drag and drop elements. With the graphical user interface, the software functions blocks can be combined to form larger applications. In many systems, event-based triggers and if-this-than-that logic is used to implement business logic and track application data as the applications are used by the end-user.
The typical elements of a low-code application development platform include:
A low-code application platform empowers engineers with limited software development experience to create applications by combining user interface blocks with model-driven logic. The generated applications comprise simple operational applications, or may require extended configuration with additional coding for specific situations.
Low-code development platforms reduce the time needed to create applications and accelerate the delivery of business applications. Thus, a wider range of people can contribute to the creation of applications, especially those with detailed knowledge of the business domain. For example, for applications in manufacturing, low-code application platforms can be used by industrial engineers to create applications for optimizing shopf floor processes in a very short time.
The benefits of low-code application platforms are manifold. From a software development perspective, the benefits include lower costs and faster development cycles:
In addition, low-code platforms are especially beneficial for applications in manufacturing. The main benefits flexibility, speed and iterability have a huge impact on how manufacturers can improve their operations. Because low-code application development puts control back to the engineers responsible for the manufacturing process, it encourages decentralized decision making based on rapid development cycles. Thus, smaller value is delivered more often, and app versions can be deployed multiple times a day. The effect is faster response to change and this is very much required in today’s manufacturing environments that are expected to produce customized products down to lot-size 1.
The WORKERBASE Connected Worker Platform is a low-code application development platform that allows to create manufacturing apps without writing software code. In this chapter we detail how to create a manufacturing app and use the example of a digital checklist to guide you through the process.
Digital checklist apps allow manufacturers to transform paper forms into a digital equivalent. With the WORKERBASE AppBuilder, a digital checklist can be built with a web browser and is automatically deployed on a smartphone, tablet or smartwatch. All data that gets collected with the checklists is automatically stored in the system and can be analyzed for improvements or sent to other systems. In this example, we will follow the following steps:
With the WORKERBASE low-code application environment, you create your application checklists in the web browser using a drag & drop interface. For the checklist app, you can choose between different preconfigured function blocks to create your checklist. Let’s say your checklist shall encompass the ability to check off items from a list, and in addition you want your user to take a picture and look up a value from a PDF document.
By using the graphical user interface, you can choose from a variety of different screen blocks and combine the required functions. The WORKERBASE system offers typical data input functions such as e.g. confirmation fields, text comments, numerical value checks or multi-checks. You can enrich the data input with image, audio or video recording or functions to display information such as text, image, video, PDF and more. You can flexibly combine all functions with one another and build your custom app workflow.
In this way, all relevant situations in production (problems, issues, quality defects etc.) can be easily documented and forwarded directly to the relevant people or systems. Of course, you can customize the functionality to suit your needs, e.g. modify the list values. This can be done manually or if required, you can automatically connect to a database or other systems like ERP to dynamically show list values.
Once you have included all function blocks, you click save and the WORKERBASE system automatically creates a checklist app for smartphones, tablets and smartwatches. The entire deployment process is done automatically and the system uploads the checklist app to the devices that are connected to the WORKERBASE system.
With the WORKERBASE system, there exist different options on how to start an app.
Apps started through an app icon on the smart device - This behaviour is very similar to classical smartphone apps. The user clicks the app icon and the app starts.
Apps started by a co-worker - WORKERBASE apps support collaboration scenarios where workflows started by one worker can be handed over to co-workers. E.g. one worker starts a checklist app on his smartwatch, fills out all values and hands over the workflow to the smartwatch of a co-worker for approval. In such a setting, the co-worker does not have to start the app manually, but will be alerted with the approval task automatically.
Apps started by an external application or machine - The WORKERBASE solution integrates with existing line-of-business applications or IoT devices. Thus it is possible to automatically start apps on the smart devices based on a trigger from a line-of-business application, e.g. ERP systems.
Apps started through the scan of a barcode - By scanning a barcode with the integrated barcode scanner of the smartwatch or from the phone and tablet app, a rule can be triggered that automatically opens an app on your smart device. With that function, you can e.g. attach checklists to individual machines or order types. Once a person scans the QR-code of e.g. a machine, the connected checklist will be shown on the smartphone of this person.
The respective barcodes and behaviour of the app have to be configured in the WORKERBASE system. By using the rule engine of WORKERBASE, you can create a new rule that listens to certain values of a barcode scan and trigger an app. Of course you can configure both the value of the barcode as well as the app and user group which shall be entitled to use the app.
The WORKERBASE system can be configured with customized rules that define what action should be triggered once an app workflow has been finished. Such rules are defined in an if-this-than-that fashion and can include all kinds of metadata, including the user, the time, the collected valued or the status of a workflow. By combining different conditions, the respective business logic can be configured. For example, a checklist can be defined to automatically send its data to an ERP system if a certain value was selected, or the data can be sent via email or a certain user group should be alerted if a checklist value does not meet a defined criteria etc.
For our example, we define a rule that stores the checklist data to the WORKERBASE database in case the “Readiness checklist” contains the value “CNC program loaded” and sends the data to an additional approver group if the value was not set.
With our digital checklist example application, your employees can tick off checkpoints on mobile devices such as smartphones or tablets. All data is stored immediately and, if required, entered directly in reports. By using the WORKERBASE rule system you can extend the checklist to e.g. send data to external systems. All you need to do is create a new rule and configure the required event trigger, e.g. completion of a workflow with the required outcome, e.g. send email.
With this approach, you can create apps that can be flexibly combined into multi-user and multi-devices workflows. The WORKERBASE rule engine is a very powerful tool that can be configured to suit your individual requirements by using a flexible event-based system. To connect to external systems such as ERP or MES systems, WORKERBASE provides a powerful connector architecture. By using web-service and REST, you can connect your existing system in only minutes. For example, you can save the recorded values directly in your quality system or automatically send PDF reports as proof of activity by email.
Typical application areas for low-code applications in Industry4.0 include:
- Machine alarms to shorten reaction times of operators and to improve OEE
- Machine setup and change over applications for centerlining and SMED workflows
- Quality inspection applications for early detection and correction of process deviation to reduce scrap
- Digital checklists for inline data acquisition
- Optimized rework to enable task coordination based on real-time data
- Inspection protocols to support inspections and collect data for traceability
- Maintenance protocols to establish standard work for maintenance jobs and to collect data for improvements
- Material management applications to reduce inventory and stock
- Digital Kanban to speed up material replenishment
- Shopfloor meeting protocols: to collect the most important information and bring all team members on the same level
- Safety checklists: to create safe work routines for all employees e.g. 5S/6S checks, safety observations, safety/forklift inspections, COVID-19 health plan
- Continuous improvement submissions: to allow employees file improvement ideas in standardized formats
- Handover protocols: to ensure shift handovers are done in a complete way so employees have all information at hand they need to perform their jobs.
- Standard operating procedures to establish standard work and guarantee timely execution of routine jobs with precision e.g. for equipment control, machine setups, gemba walks
- Andon applications to call for help, reduce machine downtimes and improve productivity
A rapidly changing economy requires manufacturers to adapt quickly. Business cycles are moving fast and dynamic customer requirements are increasing production complexity. Shorter development and product life cycles are the result. The increasingly challenging market conditions are driving the need for customized business applications. With low-code application development platforms, front-line operators can efficiently create applications to meet this demand.
The WORKERBASE Connected Worker platform is such a low-code application development platform. With WORKERBASE, manufacturers can digitally transform their operations, connect their workforce and turn data into action. Get a free demo to learn more!