As more manufacturers have invested heavily in technology to cope with the challenges wrought by the COVID pandemic and the subsequent economic turmoil, many are struggling with where they should invest the most and how to get the most from their investments. Small to mid-sized enterprises face two hurdles in making optimal investments; 1) generally limited access to capital making prioritization of highest return critical and 2) a small or limited IT staff, often with tactical skillsets and a focus on keeping the business running. Unlike large enterprises which may have IT or enterprise architects, SMEs may not even know what technology architecture is or how it can help them maximize the return on their investments. Just as in the construction business where architects interact with the engineers to design and erect a building, in the IT/OT world you need architects just as much as you need engineers and IT practitioners. And as architects merge the aesthetics of a building with the structural, mechanical, and electrical details to create a holistic view of what the building will become, the same holds true for your technology architects.
Your Technology Architecture is More than Your Network Map
Manufacturers have invested heavily in technology over the years and realize that much of the benefit comes from being able to share information between applications and systems. Networking multiple systems together has proven to be both a blessing and a curse. Ensuring systems and applications can talk to each other sometimes has proven difficult. Just documenting which devices and the applications that use the information from those devices often results in a network map showing what is connected to the network and may even document some information flow.
When you expand the description of your technology environment to include the following, you are defining your technology and information architecture:
- what are the standards by which information is shared,
- who uses the information,
- how the information is used,
- where it will be stored, and
- how it will be shared externally
The Advantage of Modular Architecture
Just as modular building construction techniques have been around for decades, modular technology architecture is not really all that new either. Modularity started making inroads into business applications in the 1990s with object-oriented design, then with service-oriented architecture and it has now evolved to what we call modular architecture. Modular architecture reflects a design model that according to Wikipedia …is a design principle that subdivides a system into smaller parts called modules, which can be independently created, modified, replaced, or exchanged with other modules or between different systems. In the IT and OT applications realm, the way leading vendors deliver this capability is by using microservices.
The advantages of a modular architecture are many. For many manufacturers today the biggest advantage is that it provides them the flexibility to implement functionality when and where needed. COVID forced many manufacturers to radically alter their production lines, facilitate remote staff working with those on the factory floor, and adjust manufacturing processes on the fly as supply chains were disrupted. If they were using monolithic software applications, the only way they could accommodate the change was to abandon their systems or wait for the supplier to roll out a new major upgrade. Instead, by deciding to base their technology deployment on a modular architecture and use applications that conformed to those modularity requirements, those manufacturers:
- were able to adapt much quicker and
- suffered less disruption to their overall business
Another advantage of a modular architecture is that it is less costly. Just as modular construction techniques lower the costs of building your next office or factory, modular technology architecture lowers the cost of deploying technology. It does this by letting you pay for only what you need and will use instead of functionality that will never be used. It also lowers costs by accelerating your go-live. When you don’t have to train, test and debug features and functions you won’t be using you can start getting value much quicker.
With manufacturing operations management and process planning and execution being the number one priority for global manufacturers pursuing digital transformation, investing in a modular architecture, and then filling it out with systems that conform to your architectural guidelines you will be well positioned to accelerate your digital transformation.
Sung is an experienced technology architect and a published computer scientist with more than 20 years of experience. During his tenure at iBASEt, he played a key role in enhancing Solumina’s technology and exploring architecture experiments for future product directions. As the CTO, Sung leads iBASEt’s long-term technology vision and is responsible for the overall product architecture and infrastructure deployment profiles, focusing on open standards and integration technologies. He also facilitates the technical community within iBASEt.