The Rise of Industrial Apps

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As the app economy grows, so too does the need for powerful apps capable of handling “industrial-sized” data. That’s led many app shops—not to mention companies themselves—to build apps with very specific industry uses. These platforms are often known as either industrial or enterprise apps.

Unlike “personal” apps, these apps handle business processes and data; when well-designed, they can contribute directly to a company’s increased operational efficiencies.

According to research firm Gartner, the worldwide enterprise-application market grew to roughly $149.9 billion in 2015, on its way to an estimated $201 billion by 2019. Long-term growth in the category is driven by a number of factors, including modernization, functional expansion and digital transformation projects; many of the projects are custom apps, and not out-of-the-box type of applications.

Industrial apps are rapidly becoming central to business. For example, operators at Hillshire Brands food plant use mobile software to monitor any area of production, from packaging status and cook temperature to capacity. The app in question, built by Rockwell Automation, provides a Windows GUI experience for accessing centralized reporting and analytics.

Apple and IBM recently teamed up to launch a string of MobileFirst app releases, including ones centered on healthcare and industrial use. Hospital RN is designed for the iPhone, and uses iBeacon technology to locate patients within hospitals, in addition to other functions; it integrates existing systems into one app on a single device and supports push notifications for alerts, requests, and statuses.

The rise of industrial apps has also been good for developers. Take the example of WillowTree, which draws 50 percent of its business from the creation of customized industrial apps. WillowTree CEO Tobias Dengel believes that Industrial Apps generally fall into one of four categories:

Sales Team Support: As Dengel explained: “These are apps that tie client info back into [the] home system and allow salespeople in the field to deliver much more customized presentations to clients.”

Field Systems and Services: These are apps for large companies that rely on teams of employees who operate outside the factory or corporate campus. Apps in this category can locate a next order, manuals, help documents, parts ordering, and more. “Now mobile devices can let technicians know what has broken and the exact broken part that needs replacement,” Dengel said. “This type of efficiency reduces the cycle time in ordering parts.”

In-Plant Efficiency: Many factories and plants continue to collect data from the production floor via last-century systems, including paper, which results in everything from shoddy data collection to transcription errors. Mobile-based data collection via a specialized app can eliminate many of these issues.

Integration with Internet of Things: Companies everywhere have begun connecting equipment and devices to the Web. This is a rapidly evolving area; Dengel mentioned that his company is building Android-based software for drones that monitor critical infrastructure such as bridges.

Security

When it comes to industrial apps, security is a key concern. Developers of industrial apps must spend a sizable portion of their time figuring out how to protect their code so that others cannot reverse-engineer it. Techniques such as API obfuscation and multi-level authentication are key; they may also work with clients on instituting policies that ensure outsiders can’t easily access the app as fake employees.

Within larger companies, third-party entities (including Red Teams) may conduct some ethical hacking to ensure that industrial apps are as secure as possible before release. If you’re building an industrial app, the need to hire these entities may consume roughly a quarter of your total budget.

Breaking In

If you’re a developer looking to break into the realm of industrial apps, you’ll need to have experience with coding security into complex platforms.

Soft skills are critical, as well. Many shops that build industrial apps do so via Waterfall, as opposed to Agile; while many tech pros view Waterfall as an outdated methodology, its exacting process can ensure a minimum of bugs pre-launch. Common Waterfall steps include:

  • Establish Requirements
  • Design
  • Code
  • Test
  • Fix Bugs
  • Integrate with Technology Stack

With personal apps, where there’s generally a higher tolerance for bugs, development teams can more easily rely on Agile methodology, which is prized for its flexibility at the expense of formula. (Agile adherents argue that the methodology’s flexibility gives them the ability to find and whack problems more easily.) In any case, without adequate soft skills, the production process is (usually) that much rougher.

Analytics also play a large part in developing mobile industrial apps. Analytics are core because they allow companies to actually monitor the efficiency of their processes.

And last—but certainly not least—is strategy. Well before the app is released, the development team needs to sit down with the client in order to go over goals, options, architecture, and timelines. Without this “macro” view, the app can’t fulfill its potential.

Image Credit: Dragon Images/Shutterstock.com

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