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Manufacturing Industry Updates

A Marriage Made in Heaven: Implementing Agile in Edge Computing Environments

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As a growing number of manufacturers turn to custom software and innovative new technologies, the agile development model would seem to be the perfect methodology to introduce them into their environment.

Yet agile is slightly more challenging for manufacturing and industrial companies, especially those that rely on edge computing systems and infrastructure. As a result, many manufacturers have either been slow to adopt agile, or even reluctant to change.

Their concerns are valid since their organizations tend to face a number of unique challenges related to deploying agile methodologies at the edge.

  • Difficult environments: To put it kindly, edge computing environments are not exactly ideal for the agile model. Most manufacturers rely on older infrastructure and legacy systems that were not architected to easily accept frequent software updates — if at all.
  • Little tolerance for downtime: Traditional agile development cycles call for pushing software updates into production every two weeks. Yet most manufacturers and industrial companies use systems that are governed by production, safety and even regulatory guidelines (think power utilities, energy plants, or water distribution). It’s not a matter of being impractical; in these cases, it’s nearly impossible to force system downtime as much as agile models require.
  • Physically demanding locations: Operating at the edge usually demands physically demanding work and effort. Edge computing environments tend to be widely distributed, remote and even harsh: rugged, busy manufacturing facilities, power distribution plants and oil pipelines. In addition to the challenges described above, worker safety and scheduling are real concerns at the edge, making it even more difficult to push updates as frequently as required.
  • The need for OT-IT convergence: The gap between OT and IT roles and responsibilities is well known in any edge-centric industry. Yet the conflict between OT and IT is intensified when attempting to implement an agile methodology. It may seem that IT should own such an initiative, but the lines blur when you consider that a successful agile model requires frequent customer interactions. In most cases, OT is usually closest to the customer, or may even serve as the customer themselves. All of this only slows the adoption of an agile program.
  • The definition of “done”: In agile, whenever a feature (or “story”) is determined to be “done,” it is then released into production. But another issue with the OT-IT gap is that it’s not always clear whose responsibility this is — or even how to define what “done” even means. This usually leads to confusion, further iterations, and other inefficiencies that derail agile adoption.

It’s clear that today’s manufacturers face unique challenges related to agile, and it’s understandable that many have not yet fully capitalized on all that agile has to offer.

Benefits of a Successful Agile-Edge Approach

The good news is that finding a way around them — and successfully implementing an agile model — can lead to many positive benefits for the entire organization.

  • Focus on business value: A success agile model will help teams focus on providing real business value, not just developing software faster than before. This usually means delivering better products, services or experiences for customers, which in turn delivers better outcomes for the overall business.
  • Continuous visibility: Let’s face it: Too often, development teams invest too much time and effort in a particular direction before they realize they’ve gone off track. By embracing the agile mindset and approach, these teams will now have much shorter development cycles. Not only does this help them achieve short-term goals, but it gives them better visibility into how these steps affect the long-term direction and quickly adapt to get back on course.
  • Happier customers: By performing regular customer demos, and then giving them faster, more meaningful updates, manufacturers will inevitably wind up with much happier customers. As an added benefit, they’re also likely to wind up with happier engineers, since these employees enjoy real-time interactions and getting recognition for their efforts.

Agile Doesn’t Have to be Hard

How to reap these benefits? One best practice is to start by stepping back and evaluating the big picture. It’s an important mindset since any agile project will inevitably consist of dozens (if not hundreds) of detailed processes, along with scrum rooms, story notes and Kanban updates. It is always a good idea to start by focusing high-level goals and desired outcomes.

Manufacturers would also be wise to consider appointing an OT representative as the official product owner. This is a key role in agile and is responsible for defining the user stories (what will be delivered) as well as accepting stories when they are done. Having an OT employee in the product owner role can be a very effective way of closing the OT-IT gap since they will work closely with an IT architect to drive the overall implementation.

Another tip is to define the company culture and then attempt to align it with the agile process. Many companies improve their success by identifying a small number of pillar values and then assigning specific behaviors to each one. For example, one company created a pillar value for “Customer Focus,” and then added ideas such as “customers inform our success,” “be obsessed with quality” and “meet our commitments.” These aligned with its overall agile process and helped this company stay on track and achieve superior results.

Manufacturers should also embrace the insights that the agile process provides. This includes making sure the scrum room is in a highly visible location and that the scrum master updates the room with key artifacts, such as prioritized user stories, team velocity updates and obstacle boards. The company should also encourage wide participation in the customer demos by including OT, IT and leadership from across the organization.

Internally, the agile team should perform 360-degree reviews to evaluate all aspects of the project. This helps identify any potential issues and then take fast action to resolve deviations and get back on track quickly.

Additionally, manufacturers should also invest in test automation tools and technology. While it may not always be possible for these companies to release updates in two-week cycles, testing automation can help ensure that the software is production ready, which avoids the need for long testing and debugging efforts. Such an approach is a perfect compromise: It delivers the most compelling benefits of agile while still meeting the unique needs of manufacturers operating at the edge.

The Agile Edge Provides an Edge

It is true that successfully implementing agile models in edge-based environments used by manufacturers and industrial companies tends to be much different than in other industries. Yet by understanding the specific challenges and creating careful strategies to overcome them, companies operating at the edge can use agile to gain a new — and sustainable — competitive advantage.

Dara Ambrose is the vice president of engineering at Stratus Technologies.

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