Introduction

If you are reading this, you’re probably either using or evaluating Siemens MindSphere as a digital industrial platform. One of the best industrial IoT platforms available, MindSphere is exceptionally strong for asset-intensive applications across a wide range of industries and use cases.

Since you may also be considering MindSphere ecosystem products to help power your digital industrial applications, this post aims to offer input about selecting a visual app builder solution. Edge2Web provides one such solution – Edge2Web Director for MindSphere – so my suggestions are colored by our experiences, product priorities, and business principles. That said, I hope you will find this input useful. If you would like to schedule an Edge2Web product demo, just hit the button below and we will contact you.

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I will also point out that, although this post is centered around MindSphere as the digital industrial platform, the ideas discussed are generally applicable to any IIoT infrastructure. Also, I use the terms “visual app builder” and “low-code” interchangeably.

Without further delay, here are my top six criteria for IIoT visual app builder solutions.

 

Deep IIoT platform support

MindSphere is a a big platform offering a rich portfolio of data services. Many of those services are query-only, while others support bi-directional access. MindSphere app developers need access to all platform services to build applications that combine asset models, real-time sensor data, timeseries history, analytics, and operating events. And to optimize performance and scalability, developers must be able to easily tune their apps to integrate data moving at different velocities.

Consider a common industrial dashboard use case that combines analytics derived hourly, KPIs recalculated once per minute, and sensor visualizations refreshed once per second. To optimize the dashboard’s performance and minimize data access costs, a developer must be able to easily configure each display element to query MindSphere at the appropriate frequency.

 

Advanced Industrial Visualizations

Most low-code tools provide basic data visualizations such as line graphs, bar charts, pie charts, scatter plots, data tables, and donut charts. Industrial dashboards and apps use these visualizations frequently, so they should certainly be included on your app builder shopping list. However, industrial users also expect to see data rendered using industry-specific visualizations such as power/utilization gauges, map views, state graphs, progress bars, tree views (especially critical for asset hierarchies), liquid gauges, process stages, user notifications, and others. Further, advanced industrial use cases require easy handling of grouped data (e.g., displaying all of the aspects of your asset types) and geo-spatial data rendering.

Although you may not need all of these industrial visualizations in your first dashboards, expect your users to ask for them early and often.

Many industrial use cases require multi-level drill-down applications that may begin with site markers on a map that are color-coded to reflect current operating states. By clicking on a marker, users drill into a site (e.g., a plant), then to a floor at the site, then to specific assets positioned on  a physical floor plan. By using visual cues provided by the app, users can quickly identify assets that require attention and view cards that reveal real-time operating metrics for those assets. Your app builder tools should allow you to create multi-level drill-down applications in a few hours, with minimal coding.

 

Value-added Application Components

Although most industrial apps deliver unique user functionality, many applications also provide commodity functions. For example, applications in equipment-intensive industries must often provide ad hoc asset browser componentry that allows end users to easily find assets of interest by walking an asset hierarchy. Your visual app builder tool should include components like this asset browser “in the box” to save you the time, effort, and expense of building them yourself.

The drill-down use case described in #2 above is particularly useful for manufacturing applications. Users navigate to a page that displays data-driven cards rendered on top of a factory floor plan image.  By opening a card, the user can immediately view real-time data for the asset at that location on the floor. Since asset locations can change, it’s really not appropriate for a developer to hard code locations into the app. Thus, as part of the app building cycle, a plant engineer will need a “helper” component like the one shown in the screenshot to the left (click to enlarge it) that allows assets to be positioned on the floor plan using drag & drop gestures.

 

On-screen Navigation and interactivity

Dashboards are a great starting point for industrial POC projects because they have high visual impact and can be created quickly. But dashboards only scratch the surface of what users will need once they have access to the wealth of data stored in your digital industrial platform.

Some low-code tools provide editors for building dropdown and swipe menus, giving users page level navigation. I would suggest adding to your product wish list the capability to easily add on-screen navigation controls that narrow users’ focus to one (or a few) nav buttons. On-screen navigation cues users to take precise, context-aware actions, saving time and improving your applications’ user experiences.

Imagine a scenario where you must build a digital diagnostic guide for field service engineers. Created with the help of a plant domain expert, the guide displays live data from critical systems, walks users through data-driven troubleshooting procedures, and gives expert instructions for responding to critical operating conditions.

Application Deployment Flexibility

Once you create a digital industrial application, you need to deploy it to your user community. In many cases you will simply publish all pages in your app to all of your target users. If your application is integrated with MindSphere’s Identify Management Service, you can be confident that users will only see their data. Awesome!

But how will you handle cases where you create app pages that are specific to certain users – say, for example, pages for company executives that consolidate data from multiple sites? For those situations, your visual app builder should give you the flexibility to easily publish shared pages to your entire community, and private pages only to selected users or groups of users. You may not need this capability often but, when required, you will find it to be indispensable.

Many industrial equipment manufacturers (OEMs) use MindSphere to offer high-value digital services with their hardware products. Frequently, OEMs want to deliver a core application suite to all customers, and also provide custom application components to specific customers. (We have been told several OEMs that the ability to offer custom digital services will be a key differentiator in their markets). For these scenarios, OEMs need to easily craft custom pages and publish them to target users within their MindSphere sub-tenants.

 

Partners that will grow with you

If you are like most of your industry peers, your company is at the beginning of its digital industrial journey. Building user excitement, consensus, and adoption is a process that is best served by starting small and using agile development patterns. Your choice of tools is critical at the beginning of this process because you will need to iterate often with users to get your applications built and deployed. The licensing terms of your chosen products should allow you to start small and expand incrementally.

As you evaluate IIoT partner solutions, make sure your checklist includes  a thorough understanding of each vendor’s business model and practices. All other factors equal, choose partners whose business approach aligns with your digital vision and roadmap. Ideally, that alignment will consider the reality that you need to deploy your first few applications quickly and economically. The best partners are those that will work with you to create measurable value and encourage organic user adoption.

Summary

Choosing the right IIoT platforms and partners can be vital to the success of your digital industrial initiatives. Although most visual app builder solutions give you the ability to create basic data displays without a lot of coding, you should also consider the kinds of industrial visualizations your users will recognize intuitively. Don’t underestimate the reality that industrial asset data is often deeply hierarchical – so seek out solutions that are designed from the ground up to render all of your data with ease. Consider life beyond dashboards – interactive apps may not be where you begin, but they will quickly become a core requirement as you tackle more advanced use cases.

I would strongly encourage you to consider whether one-size-fits-all applications will be sufficient for your user community. Will all users run the same app components, or will you also need to deliver custom functionality to specific users? If it’s the latter, make sure your app builder solution allows you to easily choose what to publish, and to whom. This is a particularly important consideration for OEMs aiming to deliver digital services with their products – you will almost certainly be asked by key customers to tailor some of your standard application components.

Finally, make sure your vendor’s business model aligns with your growth trajectory. If you plan to deploy a small pilot app and expand based on user traction, it is essential that your vendor/partner is willing to grow with you.

Best wishes on your digital industrial journey. I hope the information in this post provides a useful perspective. Please do not hesitate to call on Edge2Web if we can be of service to you along the way.