Delivering Modern, Connected, and Scalable Manufacturing Solutions

Every time you travel by plane anywhere in the world, it is likely that Sonaca is helping you on your way. Sonaca is a global company active in the development, manufacturing, and assembly of integrated structures for civil, defense, and space markets.

Sonaca provides fully integrated solutions to challenging problems from concept to detailed engineering. Their mission is to provide customers with the highest quality products, best customer service, and the most outstanding value in the industry.

In 2020, Sonaca adopted the Mendix low-code platform to standardize rapid solution development and serve as an integrator between core systems of record like SAP and Teamcenter. To date, they have delivered 13 Mendix applications that have transformed their manufacturing and shop floor processes.

From Legacy to Low-Code

The persistence of legacy systems creates a vicious cycle for IT teams. Maintaining decades-old software takes away from other valuable development projects. Knowledge is often lost as workforces churn over time.

“Before low-code I inherited a lot of legacy applications that were developed in the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s,” said Applications Manager, Yassine Bouyaqba. “They were developed in different languages and maintained up to a certain point, which created a huge technical debt.”

Yassine has been with Sonaca for a decade architecting PLM solutions and implementing Teamcenter. Today, he is responsible for their application workstream, which must work hand-in-hand with SAP, PLM, BI, and MOM systems.

“The major challenge was that we needed to digitalize,” said IT Business Analyst, Michael Doraene. But traditional development could not keep up with the organization’s pace of digitization.

In 2018 Sonaca began evaluating low-code platforms that would enable them to:

  • Deliver bespoke digital solutions more rapidly, and in turn mitigate the creation of shadow IT
  • Standardize and “keep the core clean” across their core systems of record
  • Reduce manual Excel or paper-based work throughout the product lifecycle

Strategic Partner for Scalability

With an ever-growing list of contenders in the low-code and no-code market, Sonaca initially selected OutSystems as their strategic partner. The organization also had Microsoft Power Apps at their disposal as part of the Office 365 suite.

Yassine and the team learned a lot in their first low-code implementation. However, their ambition was not just to accelerate digitization. It was to accelerate digitization at scale.

After two years, Sonaca pivoted their low-code partnership. They selected Mendix for its:

  • Multi-cloud deployment options. Depending on the country of operation, Sonaca may need to deploy to their private cloud environment or on-premise for security reasons. Having all options available would support their ability to standardize and repurpose solutions globally.
  • Out-of-the-box and web-based connections to Teamcenter and SAP. Sonaca had originally built a Teamcenter connector prior to Mendix. But, with a standard and supported connector available in the Mendix Marketplace, they no longer needed to invest valuable resources in maintaining their own.
  • Cost-effective licensing model. Sonaca needed to mitigate the constraints of developing what would be hundreds of applications on one platform.

Taking Flight with Mendix

Sonaca started working with Mendix in September of 2020. In November of the same year, Yassine’s team was meant to roll out their largest low-code project yet – a new aircraft configuration management system. The clock was now ticking to refactor the solution in Mendix in just two months.

The application would be Sonaca’s core aircraft configuration management solution going forward. With integrations to SAP, SharePoint, and Teamcenter, the application manages product configuration at different lifecycle stages, from quality documentation to issuing certificates of conformity.

“Without this system, we cannot deliver products. It’s that simple,” said Yassine. “Before this application these processes were fully manual. The configuration engineer had to resolve any deltas between planning and production manually – part number by part number. Now, it’s fully automated.”

The new aircraft configuration management system connects with:

  • Teamcenter, to validate which product should actually be delivered.
  • SAP, for part planning and inventory management.
  • SharePoint, where the application automatically generates and stores documentation that needs to be delivered with the final product.

“It had a lot of interaction with our systems, so we could use this to prove that we could easily connect to our core systems and get information from them in real-time. We also wanted to show that leading the development in an Agile way was even more efficient.”

Yassine’s team finished the aircraft configuration management system in time for the November launch. Seen as a huge success by their business colleagues, they now had a perfect proof point to generate more awareness of their new Mendix capability.

Laying a Foundation for Success

Successfully delivering their first Mendix application was a big win for Yassine and the team. To keep their momentum and ensure the longevity of the platform, the team placed an emphasis on:

  • Finding the right people to work on Mendix projects.
  • Implementing the best operating processes (in this case, Agile).
  • Structuring the Mendix platform for repeatability and consistency as they scale.
  • Promoting possibilities and success across the organization to increase stakeholder buy-in.

Vincent Rodriguez is a senior developer with experience in C, C#, C++, and Java. At Sonaca, he has primarily focused on PLM and Teamcenter customizations. He was able to jump into Mendix in just two weeks’ time. His suggestion for developers getting started with Mendix is to dive right in.

“It’s necessary to do the Mendix Rapid and Intermediate developer courses to get the basics. From there, just start your application. If you don’t know how to do it, turn to Google or the Mendix community, because you will find an answer. I found that you learn faster by just getting started and trying to figure things out on your own,” he said.

Improved Business and IT Collaboration

As the most seasoned Mendix developer on the team, Vincent has also been a key player in educating Sonaca’s internal customers and business stakeholders on working in an Agile way. Michael says that selecting product owners is something that the team does very thoughtfully – as this can make or break a project’s success.

Both Michael and Vincent described the contrast in collaborating with business stakeholders on Mendix applications as night and day. With traditional development languages and a waterfall approach, a product owner would often hand off requirements that were scoped to the best of their ability. Then, six months later development would come back with a product that missed the mark.

“The typical feedback was that we completely changed the way projects were running compared to before,” said Michael. “We often see that a product owner doesn’t necessarily know what to ask a developer for. They ended up really liking the way we collaborated with Mendix. It helps us to understand their business needs when they can’t full visualize the end-product yet.”

The visual and abstracted nature of Mendix is primed for business and IT collaboration. Team members can look “under the hood” of a Mendix application together and conceptualize the logic of a microflow in a way that traditional programming does not allow for. Spinning up a simple UX or UI can be done in hours.

For Vincent, the ability to respond quickly to product owner requests made feedback cycles more efficient.

“I also like features like the Mendix debugger. If I see a bug or something wrong, I can quickly correct it and deploy it too. In those cases, the customers don’t even see that this happens. It is invisible to them, and it is easier for me,” he said.

Governed App Development

Vincent and the team have started to build their own ecosystem of reusable Mendix components and integrations to further speed development in future projects. Sonaca has a starter application template with a fixed design language so that each new application starts with a standard UX/UI.

They also have created an application specifically to broker integrations between SAP and Mendix. This has allowed Vincent to retain greater oversight into these connections as they grow.

Vincent frequently leverages Mendix Marketplace connectors or functionality. He has also contributed his own ideas back to the community. In one instance, he saw that the existing Excel module didn’t meet his exact needs, so he built one and published it to the Marketplace.

For Yassine, Michael, and Vincent, the preference is to show people what is possible, instead of just telling them. When Yannick Rongvaux joined Sonaca as CIO, the team immediately wanted to demonstrate the efficacy of Mendix. Yassine tasked Vincent with developing an application that could manage timesheets and project assignments to showcase to their CIO. He did so – in less than 1 month.

“What has helped us make this program a success is that I have gone to our leaders in the C-suite and asked each of them what their main pain point was. Then, we try to solve it for them,” said Yassine. “As these types of projects are realized, the technology becomes more visible to other leaders, and it is much easier for us to promote.”

Manufacturing Process Optimization

Today Sonaca’s low-code strategy is twofold, using Mendix to develop:

  • Temporary applications that serve as stop-gap solutions
  • Permanent applications that cannot be covered by a core system or off-the-shelf options

In either case, the intention is not just to lift and shift a legacy process into a low-code environment, but to optimize the way work is being done.

Business collaborators like Michel Fievet, Head of Digital Transformation ESA, have seen the difference in development quality from start to finish. “As an internal customer of IT solutions, I am very satisfied with the applications that have been developed with Mendix,” Michel said.

“The flexibility of Mendix to interface or integrate with our other solutions is very useful. Even when requirements fluctuate, we can get what we need to satisfy our business requirements in an agile way. The platform is well-designed to deliver the responsiveness expected as we digitally transform our operations.”

Supporting with Short-Term Solutions

Sonaca is in the early stages of rolling out a new MES. However, there are certain shop floor processes in desperate need of digitization that can’t wait for the full MES implementation.

In these instances, solutions such as a new Mendix-built Paint Shop application are filling the gap. Previously this process was managed by a custom Excel spreadsheet with many macros that was unmaintainable.

It surfaced several non-conformities in the painting process, and when the issues persisted year over year Sonaca was at risk of being fined. The new Paint Shop application was developed in 6 months. It is a complex solution that structures product and process product requirements, then collects in-process data, like connectivity and workers.

“If the paint thickness needs to be 5 micrometers, it has to be defined at the onset. This part of the process needs to be very flexible and customizable for the controller depending on their specifications,” said Vincent.

“When the operator needs to enter the value of the data, the measurement is deployed on the paint cabin, which is very dirty. We cannot place any hardware in this environment, other than a screen and a scanner. I created a virtual keyboard with a QR code for each key, so that they can navigate the application using a handheld scanner,” he continued.

The connectivity between the shopfloor and Mendix was brokered by the Industrial Connectivity Gateway. Industrial Connectivity Services connect plants, machines, and components to higher level systems – regardless of the age of the manufacturer – connecting anything, with everything.

This application is being used in all of Sonaca’s Belgian facilities, with plans to expand into Romania, Brazil, and North America.

“One month after we rolled out the new Mendix Paint Shop application, we didn’t have any more issues or nonconformities compared to the month prior. That was a really impressive difference,” said Michael.

Providing Long-Term Support

In addition to the initial aircraft configuration management system, Sonaca is building permanent solutions with Mendix to support the strategic rollout of new opportunities. One new line of business is being established to produce spare parts for customers.

The unit was looking for relatively simple applications that could help manage their workflows. It now has three Mendix applications that integrate with SAP and Teamcenter streamlining their work.

“We are going to be building an internal enterprise service bus that will be the crossroad of all of our systems, and we have some opportunities with future quality management systems. These are key contenders to be developed in Mendix because of its portability to other country’s facilities. These are opportunities for major exposure, and the business already sees Mendix as a viable solution,” said Michael.

Sky’s the Limit

Since adopting Mendix, Sonaca has successfully rebuilt legacy solutions, digitized manual processes, and refactored applications from OutSystems and Power Apps. Along the way, the company is reimagining processes to run more smoothly than ever before. Mendix has proved to be the low-code platform that can support Sonaca’s need for flexibility as they scale.

“We will always have to deal with regulated data from an infrastructure point of view. Having the flexibility to go cloud to private cloud and on-premise at the same time to meet our local regulations is a huge relief. In this way, Mendix will help us to keep accelerating in the future,” said Yassine.

This newfound agility and self-reliance are helping Sonaca manage costs in development and retain more control over their IT landscape.

“While it is still our strategy to rely on core systems like our ERP, PLM, MES, or SharePoint, we will always need an in-house development capability to bridge gaps between these systems, respond to business requirements that are not covered by these systems, and address shadow IT and legacy application obsolescence,” said Sonaca CIO, Yannick Rongvaux.

Yassine sees Mendix as the global group standard for custom development going forward. Today, the team in Belgium has successfully onboarded their peers to Mendix in North America, with Michael and Vincent training two new developers on the platform.

For Vincent, the introduction of low-code has marked a shift in his work. “When I was hired by Sonaca I mainly worked on customizing our PLM system. Now, I work with different services and teams – paint, the factory, human resources, sales – almost all of our departments. Each time there is a new challenge to solve and something new to learn. I like the diversity of projects.”

The Sonaca team has no shortage of ideas and inspiration on where to go next with Mendix. “When our data is starting in Teamcenter and has to go through SAP and end up in MES, I am not doing that with a one-to-one web-service-per-object type. I am centralizing everything into a digital hub that relies on Mendix,” said Yassine.