But there is another way. Because manufacturing is about making things, which all of us like to do, if we get the chance. Over the past decade, the open manufacturing movement has made itself heard. The easiest way to think of open manufacturing is decentralization, this all-encompassing principle of the Internet generation. However, there’s more to it than that. All openness is not decentralized; quite the contrary. And it doesn’t mean the end of business, just better, faster, and smoother operations–with fairness baked in.
What openness means
For starters, open manufacturing builds on open designs so that once something is designed, those designs can be turned into a product and shared widely with those asked to work on it. Open manufacturing can also be open production, meaning the way the product is manufactured is open to workers of many skill levels and backgrounds. It allows for open innovation, which has the potential for bottom-up initiatives to break into the production process of industrial firms to make a difference. Lastly, open manufacturing can refer to open specifications, wherein designs, production processes, machines, and the facilities used to produce the item are widely shared. The benefit of open specifications is that they allow for continuous improvement.
The open source movement teaches us that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” I should point out that bugs, in this case, refers to flaws, not actual insects. This phrase, known as Linus’ law, was formulated by software libertarian Eric S. Raymond in his essay “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” to honor the founder of Linux, Linus Torvalds.
However, it doesn’t stop there. Open manufacturing can be globally organized. According to peer-to-peer (P2P) collaboration theorist Michel Bauwens, open manufacturing is “the expansion of peer production to the world of physical production” (see Michel Bauwens and the Peer Production Economy.) Bauwens operates from a vision of production models where the creation of all value is in service of the public good; all can be shared equally. “Decentralized open resources for designs can be used for a wide variety of things, medicines, furniture, prosthetic devices, farm tools, machinery, and so on,” wrote Bauwens, Kostakis, and Pazaitis in Peer to Peer: The Commons Manifesto. Think of it as socialism without the party line and with disdain for the archaic governance structures which have historically been used to implement this ideology. It boils down to this: those who create the wealth should also be those that benefit from it. Star economist Mariana Mazzucato makes a similar point in her book The Value of Everything, which, at its core, values “making” over “taking.” Who is against that?
If all of this sounds unrealistic, faced with the realities of contemporary industrial firms, think again. An open source manufacturing stack, paraphrasing the well-known open source software bundle, the LAMP stack for building software applications (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP (Perl, or Python) is becoming feasible. As confirmed by an explorative study financed by the US Army Benét Laboratories back in 2009 (see The LAMP stack of manufacturing.) Today’s manufacturing might need different tools, technologies, and capabilities, such as Cloud, APIs, Protocols, and Edge (e.g., a CAPE stack,) wrote entrepreneur Natan Linder in A new stack for industrial operations. Open LAMP or CAPE, such fixtures and capabilities are emerging.
The Polish startup Qcadoo, founded in 2010, produces manufacturing execution software (MES) tailored to small and medium-sized businesses. They have released an open source community edition on the Github repository, allowing users to manage production with a web browser. The French company Axelor, founded in 2005, provides open source solutions for ERP, CRM and BPM. According to their website, the platform is used in industry, government, and consulting, specifically in electronics, automotive, aeronautics, food, equipment, and textile manufacturing. In all fairness, open manufacturing is in its infancy; there are many players already (see Top 9 open source ERP systems to consider.)
To Rony Kubat, CTO and co-founder of Tulip, open source could also play a role in evenly distributing the knowledge of modern manufacturing practices through equitable training practices and skill development (see Open Source For Manufacturing: Key Lessons Manufacturers Can Learn.) Bringing the creativity and innovation of open source software into manufacturing may happen through a unified community of practitioners in manufacturing.
Rony envisions an emerging future application exchange where operators and engineers can share work practices and tools. For example, imagine if engineers could share their apps–created to improve the transparency of a business process–like how computer code is shared. Sharing best practices is powerful only when the content shared is highly actionable and has enough context. For that reason, sharing management approaches become more difficult than just sharing digital apps. Also, there’s a chance the labor market could open up. And with our current skills shortage, upskilling faster has become a necessity.
Standardization, Sharing, and Politics
Seamless data sharing in manufacturing is still a vision, not a reality. Some of the key challenges to getting standardization right (and doing more of it earlier) might be achieving true connectivity across vendors, tackling the cyber-physical nature of the systems involved, defining common (and good) data models, and lastly, making digital twins more sophisticated. Digital twins are digital representations of physical assets, devices, and systems.
As a remedy, the Linux Foundation hosts The Open Manufacturing Platform (OMP), created upon the BMW and Microsoft initiative in 2019. The initiative has added scores of corporate members recently, including Anheuser-Busch InBev and Bosch Group. The collaborative nature of open source enables companies and individuals alike to turn their visions into realities and keep up with established players such as Siemens, Microsoft, and Rockwell, even without many programmers and engineers. The OMP folks are now working on their own Manufacturing Reference Architecture (MRA) with technical suggestions and blueprints matching manufacturing challenges (e.g., “specific architecture templates, features, application ranges, and implementation guidance.”)
Beyond OMP, the key fora/consortia active in standardizing the emerging industrial IoT ecosystem includes an industry consortium founded in 1994 (the OPC Foundation.) OPC is the interoperability standard for secure and reliable data exchange in the industrial automation space. Today the foundation claims 4,200 suppliers have created 35,000 different OPC products used in 17 million applications and serving 850 members worldwide in the industrial automation, IT, IoT, IIoT, M2M, building automation, machine tools, pharmaceutical, petrochemical, and smart energy sectors.
The mechanical engineering industry association in Europe (VDMA,) with its 500 employees, represents more than 3,400 European companies. Germany’s digital association (Bitcom) supports large industrial firms, and a network of labs (LNI4.0) founded by industry giants Deutsche Telekom, Festo, SAP, and Siemens, supports German mid-sized firms. The Standardization Council Industrie 4.0 (CEN/CENELEC, DIN/DKE, ISO/IEC,) the Digital Twin Consortium, the US Clean Energy and Smart Manufacturing Innovation Institute (CESMII,) and the German Electro and Digital Industry Association (ZVEI,) are other players in the field. It doesn’t take a genius to observe that many of these organizations are German, and most are European-centric. That should be a warning sign to the other places that think of themselves as part of the future, notably the US and China.
Having said this, CESMII, the smart manufacturing institute part of the Manufacturing USA network, founded as recently as 2016, is beginning to make inroads. Also, NIST, the US standards body, does have a manufacturing page pointing to a few initiatives. The “China Standards 2035 plan,” a much anticipated future initiative, aims to “increase China’s manufacturing output and cement its position in the global supply chains of critical technologies” (see China’s ‘Standards 2035’ Project Could Result in a Technological Cold War.) Standardization is increasingly becoming part of geo-politics, but will it trickle down, having real efficiency effects on manufacturing? Time will tell.
Another effort, The United Manufacturing Hub, is an Open Source industrial IoT and manufacturing data platform, enabling users to connect all IT and operational technology (OT) devices to a secure infrastructure. UMH Systems GmbH, based in Aachen, Germany, is the company behind the United Manufacturing Hub. The hub is currently establishing an Industry 4.0 community and provides a robust and scalable architecture to connect, store, and access all relevant data sources in industrial manufacturing sites. As evidenced, the hub declared: “Manufacturing and Industrial IoT is not about developing new software at the drop of a hat. It is more about solving individual problems and challenges.” (see Open source in Industrial IoT: an open and robust infrastructure instead of reinventing the wheel.)
Open manufacturing is an ambitious task, from full-fledged government-endorsed standardization efforts via industry consortia and trade groups to informal collaboration and sharing hubs.
The future of open manufacturing
We need open manufacturing to fix the obvious problems on the shop floor and in manufacturing board rooms. If manufacturing opens up, the future will be bright. If it doesn’t, our future will be dark. It’s as simple as that. Does that mean all manufacturing tech must be released on an open source license? Not at all. Increased attention to standardization, open interfaces, APIs, and interoperability can achieve openness. Collaboration efforts go a long way. It is the principle of sharing that is essential. Dual licensing schemes can also be a powerful option allowing flexibility and choice.
So why do we need open manufacturing at this moment in time? In short, because of the rapidly increasing importance of AI, Edge, and supply chains. AI algorithms cannot operate well or safely unless each solution that depends on them discloses its inner workings. Newly arrived, Edge computing demands enormous collaboration between intelligent devices–and people. Supply chains cannot be transparent or optimized if they cannot freely share information or if key steps (e.g., tracking, order automation, warehouse entry/exit procedures, inventory management) are not well understood.
What’s important to keep in mind is that theoretical openness is not as valuable as practical openness, meaning that if the user interfaces are not fluid, that may counteract the value of technical openness. What good is an open solution with no users? We need open manufacturing now, but the good kind of openness in the right packaging. One should think that it takes a manufacturer to wrap that up.
A small section of this article is excerpted (with Wiley’s permission) from the book Augmented Lean: A Human-Centric Framework for Managing Frontline Operations, co-authored by Natan Linder and Trond Arne Undheim, forthcoming in fall 2022.
Disclaimer: I have financial interests in Tulip, the company where Rony Kubat is the CTO and co-founder, and where Natan Linder is the CEO and co-founder, quoted or referred to in this article.