IT is not an End-in-Itself

Since the beginning of 2020, Johannes Meißner is part of WITRON’s management board. The graduated engineer specialized in communications-engineering is coming from the IT sector of the company and started to work for the company from the Upper Palatinate more than 30 years ago. Does the appointment of an IT manager to the board change the strategy of WITRON?

An IT manager as new CEO - Does your appointment to the management board herald new times at WITRON, away from hardware toward software?

Meißner: I was responsible for IT, but I am also a graduated engineer, specialized in communications-engineering. So, we stay close to the hardware (laughs). Seriously: In the past, we were very close to hardware and in the beginning we developed the controls ourselves. Our own focus slightly drifts away from hardware, but we must not lose our contact and understanding of the matter. IT is not an end-in-itself. We always have to ask ourselves why and for what purpose we develop the applications, and what our interaction with physics looks like. In the public discussion, many IT “hypes” dominate the narrative. However, we have observed that many companies lose their customer focus. 

So, everything will remain the same?

Meißner: Even with the movement in our development priorities explained above, we are still in the middle of the realignment of our IT structures. This means that we are working on new user interfaces, investing in usability, using web applications, building platforms, and using cloud services. It is important that we do this together with our customers. As an example: My first project was in the US, more than 20 years ago we developed a warehouse management system, which is still in use today at more than 40 locations. It has always been maintained and modernized, and it will probably work in a private cloud in the future. 

Back to the hardware. In recent months, WITRON has relied on Beckhoff controllers, why is that?

Meißner: We see the future in PC-based controls. We receive an open development environment and we can use our software developments. 

The worlds of IT and controls are moving closer together - are high-level languages also the future in control technology?

Meißner: The borders between these worlds are fading. The controller sends data into a cloud. IT, office, and shopfloor are mutually dependent on each other, which is why high-level languages will also gain importance also docking web applications, increasing flexibility, and, in addition, universities will only rarely train students in IEC 61131 development. It will not disappear, but high-level languages are gaining importance in our control world. 

Which languages do you use at WITRON?

Meißner: C++, C#, .net as well as languages for web and mobile applications such as Xamarin/REACT. Data languages such as PL/SQL are just as important.

Do you use open source software?

Meißner: Our current strategy is to open up the WITRON applications further to the outside world through additional connectivity. We are just about to take the first steps, discuss new applications - especially in our end-to-end platform, in order to provide participants of the supply chain applications with appropriate access and control options. In the future, we want to make Micro Services available to the stores for example, which will also make our work in the logistics center easier.

A much-discussed topic in the IT area of logistics centers is the middleware when there are several providers in the warehouse. Why do WITRON and the other providers have such difficulties in developing interfaces?

Meißner: The problem is that some customers like to tinker with the middleware themselves. If we have a middleware that only creates connections between systems, then it normally works well. However, these middleware applications often get additional functions and logics added to them. The result is that it becomes confusing and sometimes even chaotic. Many users then have to maintain three systems - our system, the competitor system, and the middleware. We first have to set up the exact processes, create and use interfaces. But often these topics are not discussed properly with the end by the user, and the result is uncontrolled growth. My experience taught me: If you run several systems together, even via a lean middleware, the user will still not get the most out of the system. 

I don’t quite understand – you want your component suppliers such as Beckhoff, Lenze, or Sick to have open interfaces. However, you as an intra-logistics expert are stingy with openness?

Meißner: Yes, that’s right. In the next few years, we will experience open systems, provide interfaces, also in part to allow access to applications from the supply chain. The magic word is platform. But you also have to consider oftentimes WITRON technically manages and operates the warehouse. The direct feedback from the technical and operational operation flows into our applications in order to further optimize the system and the operation. The trend will continue to increase.

But the customer wants data.

Meißner: Yes, this is a complex topic. We have to connect the supply chain levels, need more connectivity, and exchange data via MQTT/RESTful http for control and analysis. 

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