Apps as enterprise solutions: The role of app tech in engineering
Apps have a reputation problem.
Mention the word ‘app’ to most people, and they’ll immediately think of Angry Birds, Instagram and Citymapper. What they won’t imagine are major engineering projects and complex machinery speaking to operators via the Internet of Things.
Yet this is exactly where many of the most valuable opportunities for app technology exist. Apps have the potential to make engineering processes faster, smoother and more cost-effective for enterprise businesses.
We’ve worked with engineering teams including Rolls-Royce to support, simplify and speed up their operations. In that time we’ve learned that enterprise teams can make the most of app technology to drive innovation in their organisations in three key ways: vision, buy-in and execution.
App technology enables engineering firms to showcase their vision for innovation in their business – both inside and outside their organisation.
Often, the creativity and energy involved in engineering are hidden from those outside the project team. By offering software experiences to educate or build awareness among customers, engineering teams can demonstrate their commitment to innovation and drive interest in their work. Rolls-Royce’ work with Bristol Data Dome is one such example. Here, the organisation invited customers to view several complex data visualisations at Bristol Planetarium – including interactive 3D models of their Trent aircraft engine.
Within teams, app technology can set a vision for innovation, and make innovation central to their workplace culture for the future.
Innovation workshops offer a forum for engineers to develop and discuss ideas for improving processes and operations, monitoring systems and making decisions.
This insight underpins the Rolls-Royce’ App Factory programme, of which Calvium is proud to be part. Within the programme, Rolls-Royce team members can suggest new apps for their team, or the organisation at large. Approved apps are prototyped quickly and tested by internal users, before being rolled out to their target user group. To date, Calvium’s work in the App Factory has seen us build software for fault diagnosis, design engineering, data visualisation and training, designed in close collaboration with Rolls-Royce professionals at regular workshops.
Creating transformational change with app technology requires engineering teams to think mobile-first.
Thinking mobile-first expands the parameters for how engineers operate. For example: many engineering teams meet to approve new designs. Supplying stakeholders with smartphones or tablets means they can access and approve new designs remotely, speeding up the early consultation and planning stages. In this way, assumptions around existing workplace processes are questioned and improvements made.
Chairs of enterprise-level engineering firms are already well aware that digital app technology has potential for their ongoing success. The challenge is to encourage buy-in across their large, typically slow-moving organisations.
Doing so requires evolutionary, not revolutionary, behavioural change. Apps can make this happen – encouraging teams to imagine new possibilities, rather than forcing through a top-down vision for change.
Having set the vision in innovation workshops, Rolls-Royce’ App Factory then offers engineers the chance to imagine and try new apps for themselves. Teams are asked to consider how existing processes could be improved using mobile devices and app software. In doing so, they challenge their own assumptions and established working methods which – while effective – could be made better.
Breaking inertia in this way can be uncomfortable for some. Most teams will already be engaged in software innovation, however, without realising it. Many who use legacy IT systems develop workarounds to ease frustration – whether by building complicated spreadsheets or implementing processes for reviewing each other’s’ work.
While useful, these systems lack interoperability with each other. Our work at Rolls-Royce demonstrates to engineers how connected software solutions can be developed, rolled out, and iterated quickly and cost-effectively. These apps can include interfaces that can be customised by individual users for maximum value.
Giving engineers an opportunity to think about how app technology could benefit their work and then prototyping solutions at speed encourages teams to buy into innovation. In this way, businesses can implement new processes and structures with less resistance.
App technology is one way for large engineering organisations to respond to disruptive competitors, by making their operations more agile.
It’s important, however, that engineering teams don’t use apps for apps’ sake. Too often, projects start because a team wants to use AI, VR or any other bleeding edge technology, fail – because they lack a commercial relevance for the business.
Engineering teams considering app technology should instead start with why – engaging with apps only where they add value and can serve an articulated vision.
In this way, app technology can have a transformative effect on engineering organisations – whether by making logistics decisions easier, manufacturing processes safer, or customer service more responsive. That’s not to say that a team’s vision for each app must be ambitious and groundbreaking, however. Mobile software is well suited to solving discrete issues – for example, monitoring components in an engine, or providing training materials to remote teams.
To do this successfully, the developers behind the app must understand the goals and skills of each stakeholder involved in the project.
IT teams at engineering firms typically lack mobile development experience, making many organisations’ previous experiments with mobile innovation slow and frustrating. App expertise is crucial – whether via an external agency or in-house specialist.
IT teams still have an integral role to play in successful app-lead programmes. App developers help teams ideate software and then develop it. Internal IT staff deploy the software, make iterative changes to it and maintain the data on which the app relies.
Developers must take time to understand the behavioural change the app needs to encourage within the organisation, because this will form the basis of the UX (user experience) design. To do so, they must also have a clear understanding of the context for the app, and the types of professional who will use it. This is especially important for teams working across different countries. Meanwhile, internal IT staff should ensure the data used by the software is kept secure and up-to-date.
Rolls-Royce’ App Factory uses this arrangement. Employees suggest ideas for apps via forms and innovation workshops. Calvium and other named development teams build and test these apps with stakeholders. Rolls-Royce deploys the software in a secure and stable way across the organisation. When a major update is necessary, our app development team is called back to work.
App technology has the power to make engineers’ lives easier, and slow-moving teams more agile, opening up new possibilities for engineering innovation. But to achieve this potential, business leaders must first help their team understand their vision for innovation, and recognise the value of app technology for their everyday work. Then, execute and iterate.
Could you build an App Factory in your team?
Calvium has been built to offer a full app solution for engineering teams – blending innovation consultancy with skilled app development. Follow our engineering work in action, with our enModus case study.