Graphics instead of numbers

By Lorenz Steinke
The requirement for software keeps growing in line with digitalization because more and more processes are automated and more and more industrial systems are program-controlled. What’s been lacking so far is a simple way in which even employees with no IT experience can write the applications they need for their work and connecting systems themselves. Low Code is designed to close that gap. Computer language is becoming understandable.
© iStock

The new apprentice had a good idea for how incoming order data could be transmitted from the sales function directly to the tooling department where they’d be converted into 3D data for the CNC milling machine. Yet the practical implementation of the idea is difficult because the individual systems are incompatible – the machines simply don’t want to communicate with each other.

In many factory halls, a Babylonian confusion of tongues prevails. For industrial machines alone, there are hundreds of different programming languages, from the KUKA Robot Language to the proven OS-9 for Motorola-based control units to the Printer Command Language that’s still found in many high-performance printing lines.

Most of these languages are difficult to learn and hardly cater to the needs of entry-level users. That’s why some of them disappear from the market again after just a few years. Others lead a hidden niche life in the circuits of long-lasting industrial machines – even when the specialists in those languages have long entered their well-deserved retirement.

Translator shortage in Industry 4.0

The very first industrial machines were still programmable in simple machine code consisting of zeros and ones – often with hand-punched Hollerith cards. Now, many systems understand so-called high-level languages. These programming languages are called high-level because they combine several small program steps from the machine code to create new, more complex command sequences and have adopted their designations from the English language such as IF … THEN or WHILE … DO. By means of so-called interpreters and compilers high-level languages are converted into machine code of zeros and ones. Only then will the computer understand them.

"By means of low code, machines and equipment can be migrated, with a reasonable investment, into a new ‘control world’ and integrated into existing IT infrastructure and processes.”

Fraunhofer Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology

While these high-level languages have clearly made programming easier, they’ve been far from making it intuitive. Even experienced coders still need to provide their programming texts with many comments so that they remain readable and understandable for themselves as well as for other programmers. Often, the comments are more extensive than the command code itself.

In addition, the conversion from the high-level languages all the way to the machine code proved to be a massive performance inhibitor for programs. Tasks with high computing intensity such as the simulation of flow processes in technical systems were hardly feasible with classic high-level languages.

What’s more, many operating systems and high-level languages are not real-time-capable: just a short period of trouble in the network or while accessing the mass storage device will cause the system to freeze for a few milliseconds. For time-critical manufacturing processes, that’s often disastrous. That’s why countless specialty languages were developed for industrial systems.

Finally, fast enough to become facile

Due to the massive performance increase of modern microprocessors and microcontrollers compared to their digital ancestors, the speed problem has by now largely been resolved. That has paved the way for the next simplification level. So-called low code is supposed to standardize programming and enable even career changers to do it – without first having to learn command codes and function parameters.

In some areas such as website programming, the low code philosophy has already been firmly established. Here, such module kits for content management systems have existed for some time. That eliminates the need for web teams to learn programming and site description languages like JavaScript or HTML.

Absolute minimalism

The no code development principle takes the creation of programs using low code a step further by not even using any programming language at all. Therefore, the use cases for no code have been heavily limited so far, for instance to the development of input forms or simple program scripts. However, in the future, using artificial intelligence, process flows could also be planned with the no code method and subsequently be translated into full-fledged applications. At this juncture, though, there are no companies offering that technology yet.

Modern word processing programs contain object kits as well for easier compilation of documents like annual reports or form letters. Internal processes such as those in order management and accounting or in customer service functions have long been established and visualized using low code too.

Now, low code is additionally becoming a method of interest to the factory floor. Integrated development environments (IDEs) for low code programs provide machine operators with powerful graphic user interfaces on computers that can be used, for instance, for newly setting up painting lines or injection molding machines. In that case, the surface replaces the input window typically used in programming into which the programming code used to be written as a machine-readable character sequence of text and numbers.

Graphic objects instead of long program codes

With low code, all program steps are clearly displayed as function boxes, arrows, and decision trees. Anyone who’s ever designed flow charts using tools such as Microsoft Visio, or lucidchart is familiar with the principle and typically soon able to handle a low code development environment. Many programming languages for children such as Scratch that’s being used in schools operate according to that principle.

Low code has a few special characteristics: Not everything that can be programmed in higher-level languages is possible with low code. Certain advanced programming tricks have been deliberately excluded in low code. Because the programs are less complex there are fewer sources of error as well.

Graphics instead of numbers
Applications are compiled as low code via a graphic surface. That makes programming considerably simpler and more clearly arranged© iStock

Another characteristic of low code: Copying is expressly desired. Existing modules from earlier projects can very easily be integrated into new applications. That not only saves working hours but also reduces error rates because older modules from the field have typically proven their viability and absence of errors.

Low code can easily be translated further into the languages of different machines and systems on the factory floor and as a result issue orders for all steps of a manufacturing process: from SAP-based materials ordering to conveyor belt control in manufacturing to the self-driving forklift truck that places the recently produced goods into the high-bay warehouse or hauls them to the shipping department.

Standardized connectivity for Industry 4.0

Consequently, Fraunhofer Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology regards the connection of entire factory halls that have been “speaking” different programming languages as a special forte of low code for Industry 4.0. By means of low code, says Fraunhofer Institute, “machines and equipment can be migrated into a new ‘control world’ and integrated into existing IT infrastructure and processes with a reasonable investment.”

Once a low code program has been created, IDE converts it into commonly used programming languages such as C# or Java by means of an interpreter. That enables the actual program to run on many different systems and to function even without the programming environment.

At Schaeffler, low code technology is part of the Roadmap 2025 implementation program. The Group uses two low code development platforms, both with specific features.

$40 bn

That’s the market volume for low code development platforms that could be achieved by 2028 if growth continued at the current accelerated pace, according to estimates by analysts at Mordor Intelligence.

Mendix is the low code software from the same-named Siemens subsidiary. More than 4,000 organizations in 46 countries are already using the platform for their purposes. Jakob John is a digitalization specialist at Schaeffler. He praises Mendix, “The Mendix low code platform enables us to make software development accessible to an extensive group of users at Schaeffler. The requirement for customized digitalization solutions is massive especially in our production plants. Therefore, attention of Operations IT is focused on enabling those employees. As a result, we were able to develop 30 apps with more than 2,000 users with Mendix within just one year.”

Mendix is supposed to play to its strengths especially in the automotive sector. Several automakers are already working with the software. The Siemens subsidiary promises Mendix to deliver resource savings of up to 70 percent for the development of new applications.

In addition, Schaeffler relies on the widely used Microsoft Power Platform as another basis for low code development. Many companies are already using it for process visualization and process analysis today. Jens Ebert, a product owner at Schaeffler, sees clear differences to Mendix, “especially in terms of the Microsoft Power Platform displaying its greatest advantages due to its integration with other Microsoft tools such as Office 365, Dynamics 365, and Azure.” Consequently, unlike Mendix, says Ebert, the Microsoft Power Platform “is suitable for a fast and simple start with a low entry hurdle.”

Schaeffler expects low code to ease the workload for employees. In the future, departments could automate repetitive processes simpler and faster. For instance, that could apply to the creation of web forms via low code as well as to machine reading and analysis of sensor reports on the factory floor. The possible uses are as varied as digitalization itself, and the apprentice mentioned at the beginning of this article could soon be implementing her own projects thanks to low code.

Lorenz Steinke
Author Lorenz Steinke
Seine ersten Erfahrungen als „Coder“ sammelte IT-Journalist Lorenz Steinke mit programmierbaren Taschenrechnern und Heimcomputern aus dem US-Versand. Damals war jedes Bit noch kostbar und Assembler in Hex-Code die Sprache der Wahl. Grafische Programmieroberflächen hält er daher für eine richtig gute Idee.