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As System integrators, our technical brains always envision an efficient way of solving a problem and productizing services is a very powerful way of building efficiency, Scale, repeatable quality & profitability. Most of us have attempted to standardize our services into products, and will know that the biggest pitfall there is that the same service cash-flow cycle has to fund the product development as well.
My company Axcend, wasn’t an exception, luckily, we have a dedicated product development practice that develops products for some of the largest Automation OEM’s and for some of the CSIA Integrators. Scale disrupting technologies like Cloud, HADOOP and Open source analytics tools are helping our SI community than any other industry. Another trend we see is, a blended development cycle is evolving combining Lean, Agile and DevOps methodologies.
Let us start with the challenges, I have run this with a quite a few friends in the industry and most of them tick all the boxes or most of the boxes from the below list of challenges,
- Sustainable Product Lifecycle – Software Products designed for the automation industry due to the long life-cycle of the automation eco-systems (PLC’s, SCADA systems run into decades) have an in-built conundrum of non-repetitive engineering effort on one hand and requirement of custom adaptations for almost all the installs based on industry or application used. Today, most product managers circumvent this problem with “available” team members resulting in perennially stretched timelines and fractured products.
- Financing the Development – Process expertise & standardization scope always exists in a system integration business and productizing them looks very promising but the longer lifecycles and a floating development team, always over-run the benefits of productizing and products are dropped after years of efforts & investment.
- Skill management – When the industry speaks about cloud-based web-scada’s, we know that skill sets needed to compete well in the market have changed and is evolving at a greater speed. The smartest engineering team will also struggle to adapt when there are so many moving parts in the development.
- Smaller Installed base – Most often than not, years of expertise in one or few industries and few processes are standardized and developed into products. The other side of this focus is that the installed base is generally not very high resulting in large overhead costs.
- IA and IT technologies evolving at different speeds – Control systems running for decades are common in our industry while IT evolves in months. Having a Modular architecture solves the problem to an extent but also results in either a very long backward compatibility list or modules evolving at different speeds – both leading to large and continuous financial investment
- Resource Productivity – For Small & Medium system integrators for that matter even for large Integrators any un-billed efforts of an engineering resource will be a direct loss of revenue. So, we see that when a project is underway product development takes a back seat and when resumed results in a “broth” made by the “cooks” available at that point in time.
Adapting to the Product Development Challenges:
We can see a clear pattern evolving here – there is no difficulty in conceptualizing a very marketable control engineering product but the inherent challenges in our business model and development philosophies are the biggest challenges. Solutions to these challenges are already available in terms of disruptive technologies and collaborative development. Some thoughts here,
- Blended Development Methodologies:To quote Gartner “By 2018, the transition to agile, DevOps and web-scale IT practices will become as disruptive to IT as the adoption of lean was to manufacturing during the 1980s”. DevOps particularly, with its integrated quality and elimination of a separate testing cycle shows a lot of promise. The other important development is that all the popular IDE’s are now web enabled and designed for collaborative development, allowing you to place your development team at any part of the world today.
- Cloud for global market:Cloud services and apps provide the most powerful tools required to meet product development challenges. The most obvious benefit of real-time and infinitely scalable infrastructure is that it provides a huge lever to scale our products to global level, no more smaller installed base or locked in resources. Microsoft azure particularly provides smart tools for building manufacturing industry solutions. We have first-hand experience of building a successful product for a small company which is now marketed worldwide.
- Adapting new Technologies: Technology advancement in control engineering, has been on steroids – The evolution of Sensors, the ubiquity of industrial WiFi, Open source technologies like Kafka that simplify the data handling architecture required for data intensive and complex applications. HADOOP provides a promising alternative for handling unstructured and structured data in a secure way. When real-time analytics are required from high volume of data, SPARK another open source solution, offers great solution for real-time analysis and rapid data processing. With the right mix of data and a thought through architecture – SME’s can now deliver products in the same league as the enterprise corporations.