How Facebook can improve manufacturing

February 21, 2019

The world’s most popular social network isn’t just great for sharing cat videos. By sheer luck, it’s also making factories a lot easier to run.

Many changes are happening in the field of manufacturing software. Until very recently, the systems controlling how factories operate (especially production lines) — setting parameters and preventing breakdowns — have been mostly client-server based. They’ve been installed into servers and desktops as needed and run inside the facilities.
Over the past year, however, there has been a large-scale shift toward browser-based solutions. The change was rapid and unexpected. “A couple of years ago, you couldn’t even suggest something like that. Nowadays, most of the new systems are browser-based,” says Kari Juntunen, Nortal’s Vice President, Key Accounts.
The biggest draw of the browser-based approach, he says, is how it makes performing updates much simpler. Instead of the traditional practice of installing a new version of software on every PC in the manufacturing facility, a system provider like Nortal only has to update the version sitting on the server. And this can be done remotely.

Where does Facebook fit in?

In the early 2010s, Facebook engineers developed a front-end programming tool called React. Their initial goal was to make it easier to code Facebook itself. But as it turned out, React is also extremely useful for creating the browser-based interfaces that are currently taking industry by storm.
“Right now, React is one of the most popular JavaScript libraries for building web-based user interfaces. It’s our team’s preferred tech, and we’ve successfully used it for building web apps for several industry projects,” Juntunen notes. There are similar offerings on the market, he says, but React is relatively easy to learn, flexible, simple and has great tooling.
This technology also creates a major advantage in the development phase; namely, architects and programmers no longer have to spend up to a year creating a demo. “You don’t have to code or program a demo like you used to. You can sketch things out on your screen, and React creates the running code automatically. This solution saves a lot of time and money.

Building trust

Nortal has been pointing its industry clients toward using browser-based interfaces for around five years now, Juntunen says, but there was a lot of resistance to the idea. “The general attitude was that browsers are for Facebook and games, not for serious work.”
The largest concern, naturally, has been data security. Juntunen points to Nortal’s use of robust, built-in security measures that have met the high demands of long-time customers. Even with those arguments, he says, clients were cautious.
“It’s just now that companies are really starting to trust these systems. One reason may be that the public sector has been using these technologies for years. Another is that the tools are so advanced we can demo them easily.”
Speed is another issue commonly raised by clients, fearing that a hiccup could disrupt production. Juntunen says latency has, in practice, never been a problem.

Once a client sees the demo and reviews other customer cases, they’re convinced. It also helps that browser-based interfaces are quickly becoming the de-facto standard for these factory applications. In fact, all the new systems we are creating are browser-based.”

Juntunen says that, when you look at the big picture, it’s not too surprising that a social network has ended up playing a role in changing how factories are run. “Nowadays, the game has changed. Giants like Facebook and Google are hiring all the brilliant minds and creating all the programming tools.”
Given the fast pace of software development, he says, it may be that Nortal switches to using front-end development tools other than Facebook’s in the near future. The opening of factory systems to the ease of the internet, however, is unlikely to ever reverse course

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