The Future of Digitalization Speaks Low Code: PLM Insights from Mendix World 2020

The low-code movement aims to make programming more accessible for engineers.

Seriously? There's no app for that? With low code, engineers can build their own apps using a minimum of programming skills. In recent years, digitalization, personalization and digital transformation became the norm, and therefore, programming, or coding, needs to be more accessible across domains and industries. (Stock photo.)

Seriously? There’s no app for that? With low code, engineers can build their own apps using a minimum of programming skills. In recent years, digitalization, personalization and digital transformation became the norm, and therefore, programming, or coding, needs to be more accessible across domains and industries. (Stock photo.)

Low-code development refers to the ability to create customized dashboards, applications or integrations using easy and rapidly deployable coding methods supported by user-friendly interfaces and visual tools—without being a full stack developer or needing an advanced development environment. Low code should make coding accessible to the product engineer, without requiring the education, experience and skills of a professional developer. 

Low code has recently been in the news with Aras Innovator V12 SP9 platform extension announcements, as well as with Siemens’ Mendix World 2020 conference (done virtually earlier this month). The conference showcased a number of interesting examples covering how the Mendix low-code platform can integrate data intelligence from multiple sources, including product development innovation platforms (aka PLM) and other digital twin solutions across the industrial sector. 

The Rise of Low-Code Application Platforms

Application development, customization and integration are “must-have” capabilities to tailor business operations and their data management platforms. Niche skills are typically required to make it happen technically as digital implementations are not trivial.

Industry analysts defined low-code development as a swift and easy approach to coding. As Mendix puts it, “low-code is a visual approach to software development . . . by simplifying and automating every step of the application lifecycle.” Others have defined it in more technical terms.

In 2014, Forrester defined low-code platforms as: “platforms that enable rapid delivery of business applications with a minimum of hand-coding and minimal upfront investment in setup, training, and deployment.” And Gartner (2019) defined this kind of development as “an application platform that supports rapid application development, one-step deployment, execution and management using declarative, high-level programming abstractions, such as model-driven and metadata-based programming languages.” 

Having the ability to use simplified programming languages and tools is not really new. However, modern low-code platforms cover a widening applicative and cross-application integration scope, using infrastructure agnostic and online customization tools, accelerating cloud-enabled application deployment, and increasing openness and simplicity, with greater accessibility, agile thinking and execution. 

Acknowledging that companies don’t just build apps but experiences, this market is broadly referred to by Gartner (2020) as a multi-experience development platform (MXDP) to reflect the expanding creation potential. 

Mendix is a Leader in the Gartner 2019 and 2020 Magic Quadrant for MXDP. (Source: “Magic Quadrant for Multiexperience Development Platforms,” Gartner, July 2020.)

Mendix is a Leader in the Gartner 2019 and 2020 Magic Quadrant for MXDP. (Source: “Magic Quadrant for Multiexperience Development Platforms,” Gartner, July 2020.)

In practice, “low code” can contribute to connected solutions with a more collaborative approach between IT and the business—a very important factor for enterprise digital platform adoption such as product lifecycle management (PLM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP), especially for PLM solutions where most technical complexity and resistance to change can be traditionally experienced. 

Low-code Developments in the PLM Space

PLM typically starts with high level business requirements, which can gradually expand into complex, detailed process, data and system customization requirements. In the PLM space, “minimum customization” has typically been the mantra when deploying programmed adaptations and augmentations—and also when mitigating future maintenance bills from implementation service providers. 

In the last edition of Mendix World 2020, a number of showcased projects illustrated the value that low-code developments can bring to PLM. Most examples leverage the Mendix Data Hub as a transformation layer or extended staging area where most simplifications become possible, and as an overlay platform to visualize and aggregate datasets, from which business SMEs and data experts can mine the relevant insights across multiple data sources. This approach is based on creating data bridges between legacy sources and the data hub, or by replicating data directly into the hub with its associated business logic.

Speaking about low-code development in the context of PLM is somewhat of a novelty that will hopefully contribute to answering many questions, such as:

  • Are all low-code development platforms equal, especially in the context of PLM-related capabilities?
  • Is there a one size-fits-all low-code approach across product development innovation, ERP and operational executions?
  • Are the required PLM capabilities and APIs available through low-code platforms?
  • How many low-code languages exist or are required to integrate cross-PLM or -ERP platforms?
  • Are PLM low-code platforms sufficiently matured or when will they be?
  • Will niche PLM “shadow IT” teams still be required, and how easily will technical teams be able to leverage opportunities from low-code customization in the context of complex engineering data, both for files and metadata?
  • How will low code actually contribute to breaking traditional silos of engineering-manufacturing and IT to promote continuous improvements in collaboration?
  • How will organizations select low-code platforms, and will they be facing any vendor “lock-in” challenges?
  • Will low-code platforms promote cloud adoption in the PLM space—which is still lagging somewhat behind other enterprise digital platforms? 
  • How will legacy data sources and outdated IT systems be gradually decommissioned to fully make space for modern low-code-enabled platforms in the PLM space?

Beyond the marketing hype of low-code development, it is a good idea to put this to the test and understand more about the ability to experiment and deploy quickly with low-code, non-evasive customization and integration methods. Where do most opportunities reside, and how easy and fast will it be to address a number of sticky PLM challenges: from complex processes, resistance to change, lack of flexibility, to difficult customization, limited open connectivity and legacy integration capabilities?

PLM-Related Low-Code Development Opportunities

Having watched a number of videos from the Mendix World 2020 virtual conference, there are clearly five core areas where “low-code directly meets PLM” and has the potential to generate great business value in the product development space:

  1. Business process automation and customization: improving workflow efficiency, flexibility and customer experience in not just using but also implementing and testing these solutions.

Process design and customization is not simple—everyone knows that. Low code can help cut down the lengthy business-IT debates about tools and design specification by jumping to prototyping and flexibility. Hopefully, this will also be a way to promote and control effective and efficient customization through adequate governance (rather than pushing back on any customization by default).

  1. Integrating digital twins across the enterprise: improving operational efficiency throughout the full product life cycle.

Low-code language combined with an effective transformation layer (an established staging area with all the required tools) can enable integration of complex data, bypassing to some extent legacy PLM and ERP complexity, and finding new ways to make information available to teams or systems previously disconnected.

  1. Industrial automation and data feedback loops between the shop floor and engineering offices: from IOT to PLM-ERP, shop  floor AR visualization data, and back.

Removing data accessibility barriers is clearly one of the selling points of low-code languages and platforms. This brings the opportunity to understand the business decision-making process before embarking onto complex enterprise transformation programs, bringing the required data to the relevant end users through iterative collaboration between business and technical teams.

  1. Data migration or aggregation from different data sources: leveraging an intelligent transformation layer for data visualization and mining.

Data analytics is often a weak point in the PLM space where duplication of work is commonly experienced. Providing accessible tools to create intelligent dashboards and data quality assessments will dramatically contribute to process improvement, data integration and migration.

  1. PLM-ERP integration with a flexible transformation layer: delivering upon the promise of model-based systems engineering (MBSE). 

Beyond process and data improvements across legacy and new platforms, the same applies across engineering, manufacturing and the rest of the business—and therefore across traditional PLM-ERP interfaces. For example, Mendix already unveiled native integration with SAP S/4HANA and other components of the SAP Cloud Platform last year. The Mendix-SAP partnership already went a long way since its announcement in 2017.

Low-code platforms clearly provide a significant step forward in the democratization of PLM deployments, ERP and IOT integrations—from shop floor to top floor—toward enhancing and hopefully simplifying how PLM platforms are customized, deployed and integrated.

Siemens’ acquisition of Mendix in 2018 was clearly a strategic move, with the company taking the leap into low-code platformization with an already established global leader. And following this, Mendix was announced in 2019 as the core platform for Xcelerator, Siemens’ new integrated PLM product and service portfolio—an open platform to continue building the digital Thread, further integrating SAP’s portfolio into the mix (following the recent announcement of the Siemens-SAP partnership in July 2020). Watch this space.