You might think you’re in the automotive, architecture, manufacturing, or engineering business. But soon enough, you’re also going to be in the software business.
That doesn’t mean you’re going to start writing code or slinging mobile apps. But whether you’re in construction or precision machining, in the future, your business will need to develop some level of competency in software development. Don’t think you’re alone: Everyone else is in the same predicament because everything is going digital.
Your business might be the furthest thing from a digital or Internet of Things product (for now), but if you want to maintain your competitive advantage, you need to consider your company’s interaction with customers and suppliers, your product development, and your maintenance processes—and where it makes sense to digitize.
Do you remember Chris Anderson’s book The Long Tail? In it, Anderson described that, historically, companies were not able to successfully bring a large variety of solutions to market because physical manufacturing, distribution, and promotion were prohibitively expensive. But when the Internet arrived, the marginal cost of distribution and marketing dropped dramatically. And as a result, companies could build highly specific solutions or products to meet people’s needs.
Consider, as Anderson did, movies that appeal to an extremely specific audience—think existential, avant-garde films about chickens (probably in black and white and definitely with subtitles). It would be a waste for a movie-rental chain to carry that DVD in all of its stores, but the Internet provides the means to find the four people in the world who really love avant-garde movies about chickens. With the Internet as a platform, you can aggregate all these special-interest people into a single environment, which adds up to a strong and vibrant community.
In the example of a product manufacturing company, a lot of what that company does to succeed is common among other manufacturers—from customer, employee, and engineering management to shipping and receiving to factory production. Likely, the manufacturer uses some sort of generic, off-the-shelf automation solution (think CRM, ERP, and so forth) to address those functions and meet about 70 percent of common manufacturing needs.
However, that manufacturer still has 30 percent of its business that is unique. Say the company makes shoes. That shoe company needs the ability to deliver customized options to its buyers—say through a point-of-sale application that can scan someone’s foot, provide material choices, enable high-quality visualization, and offer real-time estimates for cost and availability. But much like the avant-garde–chicken situation, the manufacturer won’t find a broad swath of software companies writing shoe configurators. The shoemaker needs to build its own solution to manage that.
And that’s where the software-development competency comes in: To stay competitive in the future of making things, companies need customized digital solutions to meet their unique production, customization, and supply-chain needs—whether that’s a user interface for driving oil tankers or a cost-estimating system. But this doesn’t mean you need to hire a gaggle of developers to start building your own bespoke software.
Today, companies like Amazon, Salesforce, and others already offer digital platform solutions to help you do business: a high starting point that makes the incremental cost of building a custom solution very low. These cloud-based platforms work because they are easy to use and malleable so that every company can make them their own. For example, many companies use Amazon Web Services to write software for SaaS and mobile applications. The platform is undeniably powerful, but it doesn’t understand anything about the physical world.
Industries steeped in the future of making things—architecture, construction, infrastructure, manufacturing, automotive, and so forth—demand a platform that provides the kinds of functions to describe, validate, and make or build physical things.
Much like the fictitious shoe manufacturer, a big auto company recently needed a custom application specifically for its crankshaft supplier. Although the app was for just one supplier, it was an important tool to digitize the process validating the crankshaft design before delivery. The automaker used the Autodesk Forge platform to create that solution.
Likewise, a structural engineering firm needs to run multiphysics analysis for properties such as acoustics, sound, vibration, and stress. So that firm needs to write its own engineering software to support the proprietary algorithms it has built over the years to validate its designs. A platform built for the future of making things can enable the firm to digitize that unique part of their business.
The good news is that any one platform doesn’t have to do everything for all companies—the platforms are designed to work together. For example, if you have the Sonos home-audio system, you can say, “Sonos, I have a Spotify account and a Pandora account.” Sonos doesn’t need to house all of that music to play it back; rather, it uses Web services to connect to your various accounts. Forge, for example, can connect to Proto Labs for manufacturing and machining and Amazon for cloud storage. Just as people can collaborate over the Internet, platforms themselves can connect and collaborate—which was never possible before.
Developing your own software competency to address the unique 30 percent of your business is really about securing the digital future of your company. By now, you know that the whole business ecosystem—the way things are made, bought, and sold in all industries—is changing completely. To stay competitive, you’d do well to change along with it and consider your digitization capacity now—before your closest competitor does.