Nick Ford, VP of Product Marketing at Mendix, gave IT Supply Chain a brief introduction to low-code and explained how it can benefit those working with supply chains.
What is low-code development?
Low-code development takes away the manual, and often tedious, coding process, and replaces it with visual modelling. By removing this layer of complexity, low code speeds up the creation of applications, including custom web and mobile apps – taking only a tenth of the time usually spent developing apps.
But speed is only one of the benefits of low code: today, developers are a scarcity that all businesses struggle to recruit and keep over time. Through its novel approach, low code makes coding available to all – including non-technical developers that we call ‘citizen developers’. Whether they come from operations, HR or marketing, these self-starters are thinking of ways to leverage their domain knowledge and use technology to build applications that really fix business problems. And these citizen developers need a platform that helps them do so without having to spend years learning how to code.
In many ways, low code works like an assembly line: everyone has a role to play towards a common goal. It just happens that this common goal is the visual development of a business app, rather than a physical product.
What are the main benefits of low code?
From improving productivity to making maintenance easier, the benefits of low code are undeniable. By enabling more people to participate in the development of apps, low code improves collaboration across the workforce and brings more transparency between departments. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. In effect, low code has been designed to be modular: the language it’s based on is easy to use, the platforms are agnostic and can be used across any technology spec, and the only limitation to the power of low-code apps is the imagination of the developers.
Low code also reduces the overall cost of creating applications. It is no secret that developers are in short supply and can cost a pretty penny, so enabling a regular business user to build applications – without compromising quality and governance – is obviously going to save organisations money.
On top of that, low-code platforms also improve speed and productivity. They allow you to build an app six to ten times faster than using traditional methods by drastically reducing the need to create code. Since it relies on visual modelling, it makes it much easier to create the bulk of the app. Since it only involves coding for the most complex features such as calculating stock or fleet management, for example, it makes it easier for the IT team to prioritise activities and ensure software developers dedicate their time to tasks that provide real business value.
What types of applications can be built using low code?
The beauty of low code is that any type of application can be built, if the users have creativity and vision. Often, we find that applications typically fall into different categories: legacy migration, improved operational efficiency, mobile and brand-new services.
Applications for legacy migration are intended to replace legacy solutions that can’t support current processes or provide an ideal user experience. These require new functionality to support changing business processes. For example, we recently helped Secrid, a company that designs and produces the next generation of wallets, to make its supply chain more transparent. That involved moving its extensive supplier model and production process away from Excel, which lacked the transparency and insights required to make the process as efficient as possible. Now, Secrid’s low-code app keeps this process highly structured in order to meet customer demand and to safeguard customer satisfaction.
Low-code apps are also often used to improve operational efficiency by lowering development costs and time, and reducing the possible errors caused by manual processes. In highly regulated industries like logistics, such apps aim to reduce complexity, improve the transparency and monitoring of data, and make it easier to adhere to compliance standards. With low code apps, logistics managers can create a system where each app can communicate with each other as and when necessary to better track the huge volumes of data the logistics industry processes day in, day out. We recently worked with a global lease management company to help build an application that centralises procurement information, ensures all data is stored correctly, and updates information almost instantly to enable large-scale manufacturers to manage their assets. It now takes the company minutes instead of months to update the application.
Smartphone use has increased massively in recent years, along with the massive consumer adoption of innovative apps and services. This has caused fundamental changes to application architecture that is more impactful than the earlier shift from monolithic systems to client/server architectures. Low-code apps can be created for mobile that can lead to operational efficiencies for businesses. This device integration simplifies tasks and makes processes more accurate, which is a massive benefit to logistics organisations. It is also beneficial that low-code can be used to ensure these applications support offline capabilities to ensure there is no downtime for workers, even when they don’t have a connection.
How can low-code support supply chain management?
The rise of digital has transformed the way the supply chain operates: for example, products are designed differently, with the rise of digital factories and Robotic Process Automation (RPA). Organisations also communicate with their customers and providers in more ways than ever before, from chatbots through to Whatsapp. And finally, the role of frontline workers such as delivery people has changed: today, customers expect them to give clear answers, including any reasons for delays, the time of the start of the journey for high-risk products such as medical supplies; and even the carbon footprint of their journey for companies that are looking to implement sustainable practices.
Another major shift led by digital is the rise of online-first companies, which no longer rely on the traditional supply chain model. These companies are based on digital-first business models, where technology plays a central role in visualising stock, planning delivery routes and fleets and managing returns. Low code helps simplify this even further by providing IT managers with a visual response to complex development, so they can respond to the pressure of their business faster and in a more user-friendly way.
In addition, low code helps support traditional supply chain providers in their transition to a digital economy. Today, low-code applications often incorporate smart technology such as IoT, machine learning and blockchain to uncover new ways to deliver value to a business.
Supply chain managers face continual change in operations and reporting; to comply with the pace of innovation, they can no longer rely on rigid systems. Instead, they need dynamic solutions that can be updated quickly to suit the evolving needs of the business, and the changes in regulation and compliance standards. This is particularly crucial for the UK as it embarks on its definite departure from the EU, which will impact the way all industries receive and transfer goods and services.
It’s also worth noting that supply chains are often disjointed and running on multiple outdated systems that don’t communicate with each other properly. This can hamper source and finished goods inventory control, visibility, and timely deliveries to customers. Operational efficiency starts with digitising analogue processes, unifying legacy systems, and aggregating data – all of which can be done with low-code applications.
What should you look for in a low-code platform?
There have been several new entrants into the low-code space in recent years, which makes it even more important to consider the platform’s capabilities when making a decision. For me, there are certain key features a platform must provide.
Firstly, and probably most importantly, a good low-code platform should be fully integrated. For application development to work effectively, it is vital that it can integrate with other technology that an organisation is using. The best low-code platforms offer APIs to make this integration as seamless as possible.
Enterprise applications don’t live in a vacuum; instead, developers need to guarantee their applications can scale – and that they can create more than one on a single platform. Being cloud-native is therefore a prerequisite for effective low-code platforms: highly portable, they can also adjust with the times to offer new features, run anywhere and be combined into other applications as necessary.
Finally, the platform must support a DevOps approach to application development; this means that it can support small cross-functional teams as they develop applications for fast and iterative development – whether these are citizen developers with little to no technical knowledge, or seasoned developers with years of experience building complex processes.