Scaling a Low-Code Practice to Drive Shop Floor Innovation

Schaeffler Group structures a low-code practice and community to enable rapid software delivery across the manufacturing value chain.

Automotive, industrial, and aerospace organizations around the world rely on technologies such as engines, wheel bearings, and steering systems from Schaeffler Group. Schaeffler prides itself on advancement – having applied for over 1,250 patents in 2022 alone – and a vision to be the automotive and industrial supplier of choice, leading through innovation, agility, and efficiency.

To deliver this level of innovation and readily adapt to their evolving user needs, Schaeffler realized that they would also need to evolve their approach to software delivery. While many core systems were adequately covered by traditional programming languages, bringing personalized or bespoke requests to fruition was a challenge.

In 2021, Schaeffler adopted the Mendix low-code platform to fill this gap in their development capacity. In just two years they’ve established a low-code practice and nurtured a community with hundreds of innovators contributing to software development across the enterprise, delivering 30+ applications that digitize manual employee work and shop floor processes.

Bridging the Gap in Software Delivery

Before the rollout of a low-code platform, the standard process for new solutions at Schaeffler was typical IT demand with a delivery pipeline. A committee of IT stakeholders would review and prioritize new software ideas which typically met one of two outcomes. They were either not high enough priority to develop, or they were estimated to take several months or years to deliver. 

“Due to the amount of time that it took to manage that usual IT demand, there were colleagues that started to do their own development with Excel VBA, Python, Java, and very often they were not managed – which meant no security controls or development guidelines from IT,” said Jakob John, Digitalization and Solutions Platform Manager within Schaeffler’s Operations IT group.

John’s purview includes the provision of all meaningful applicable citizen development tools within the operations domain (purchasing, production, industrial engineering, quality, and supply chain management, with strong focus on the shopfloor).

A Schaeffler executive encountered low-code application development and tasked the Operations IT department with conducting a benchmark analysis of six platforms to complement their traditional development approach and satisfy the growing need for digitization.

Furthermore, the Mendix platform stood out as:

  • A powerful IDE for professional developers that was also approachable for beginners.
  • Easiest to integrate with other technologies and core systems, such as SAP.
  • Able to support the delivery of applications that must interact with external vendor and customer systems.

“We have cases where we need to gather data from a vendor for raw material, for example,” said John. “In the past we often gathered this data through email, and then a person would manually transfer it from email to another system by copying and pasting. With Mendix, processes like this have quickly become a simple user form that transfers the data right to a database and any other relevant internal systems. It saves a lot of time and ensures better data quality.”

More Than a Platform

In an organization of Schaeffler’s size – 84,000 people – re-orchestrating the approach to software development is not an overnight process. The Operations IT team relied heavily on Mendix best practices for digital execution in their early days to ensure successful adoption, which included:

  • Establishing a low-code Center of Excellence and training a dedicated team.
  • Identifying their first application and defining what makes a good Mendix use-case.
  • Structuring the Mendix platform around Schaeffler’s technical requirements to deliver at scale.
  • Promoting the possibilities of Mendix internally to build awareness and a community of evangelists.

People-First Change Management

Schaeffler kicked off their Mendix program in late 2021 and immediately established a Center of Excellence (CoE). This dedicated team within corporate IT owns standards related to development best practices, such as security or integration guidelines.

The CoE sits at the epicenter of low-code development work in a hub-and-spoke structure, which allows for consistency and oversight across the many groups who may develop Mendix applications, whether it be team members on the Operations IT team, business technologists, or third-party contributors.

One of those team members is Risheek Thamatham Reddy, a career developer with C# and .NET experience within Schaeffler. Reddy began his Mendix training with guidance from the CoE and was able to start delivering solutions with the platform in just a few weeks.

“I was first recommended the Mendix Rapid Developer Training, and that gave me a lot of insight into how the platform worked,” said Reddy. “The courses were really educational. The interface is also very similar to the Visual Studio interface, so coming from a traditional background and then using Mendix felt familiar to me.”

John and his team didn’t want to rely solely on a bottom-up approach to promoting the use of Mendix in the organization. “One aspect that helped us a lot with integrating Mendix was a clear commitment from leaders of the three IT groups – Strategic, Corporate, and Operations. Their support was a key factor in helping us to roll out Mendix.”

Mendix Project Selection

At the end of 2021, Schaeffler selected their first application – a lighthouse project which would address a common challenge within Schaeffler and serve as a representation of what was possible with Mendix.

“We searched for a typical use case that could be found in nearly every Schaeffler plant,” said John. “We selected a checklist documentation process related to customer complaints. Previously it was paper-based, and we turned it into a workflow-based Mendix application.” From this idea, the first Mendix application – Cheraw Grinding Documentation – was developed.

Because of the training foundation and standards outlined by the CoE, this lighthouse project was built by a colleague who was new to both Schaeffler and low-code. “What impressed me the most was that after three weeks of full-time training she was able to realize this project for us without any prior knowledge or IT experience,” said John.

Platform Standardization and Scalability

While Mendix offered Schaeffler team members an opportunity to start new projects quickly, they did not want to neglect the importance of maintaining consistency and quality in those applications as the volume of contributors grew.

The composable nature of Mendix allows organizations like Schaeffler to standardize their design, common components, or integrations and make them reusable for other team members across the organization. “We have a Schaeffler app template that has grown over the last few years,” said John. “We are adding every component that interfaces to other systems as building blocks within the template, and we have a standard UI/UX design.”

Determining what to include in an enterprise starter app template also allows for natural demand management and the ability to see common areas of overlap and efficiency between teams. “If there requests for similar components or applications that are related to maintenance for instance, then we can try and bundle those applications and connect these teams or processes at a global level,” John added.

Outside of the starter application, developers like Reddy appreciate the speed of development that can be realized by leveraging so many out-of-the-box features and functionality.

Schaeffler also saw efficiency in the cloud-native nature of Mendix which allows them to implement a multi-cloud strategy to meet their unique needs. Internal-only applications are deployed to Schaeffler’s private cloud instance and external-facing applications are deployed to the Mendix Public Cloud.

“We wanted to ensure that our security guidelines could be met in every potential use-case. Now it doesn’t matter if you have a low data security risk or high data security requirement, you can always deploy it on our private cloud or the public cloud and meet that standard, and it’s quite easy,” said John.

Promoting Success and Building Community

Generating awareness of their capabilities with Mendix goes much further than the initial statement of support from group IT leadership. Today, the community of Mendix users within Schaeffler totals over 500 people who have found moments of connection and celebration through:

  • Weekly best practice meetings to discuss ideas, roadblocks, and solutions.
  • An internal intranet that houses documented use cases with videos and app information.
  • Regular hackathons, which are open to any interested participant within the organization.

“In the end, I think one of the best things has been the experience of the hackathons which have had over 100 participants since we started,” said John. “It was surprising to see how important this was in building our community. People liked having the opportunity to work with other colleagues that had the same interests and could share their own knowledge from other departments. It caught on and has grown very organically.”

Of those participants are team members such as He Wei Zhu, a Sustainability Project Manager, and Hoa Nguyen, a Logistics Specialist in Schaeffler Vietnam. Both Zhu and Nguyen sit in roles that are not expressly IT or software related, but in learning about the hackathons, they were able to experience firsthand how Mendix could be applied to their respective work areas.

Hackathon participants are offered hands-on training with Mendix experts beforehand. They are then put into teams of 4-5 people with varying levels of Mendix knowledge. The teams will align on a use case to develop throughout the course of the three-day event before presenting the results to a committee of judges.

“I had a traineeship in Schaeffler before my current role,” said Zhu. “I saw a lot of departments using Excel solutions and when I learned about Mendix, I thought that it was a great tool to solve those problems efficiently without being too costly. I participated in two of the hackathons and worked on one case for product calculation and another to sequence boxes in the production line.”

Nguyen had a similar experience in the logistics team. “Our team has a lot of ideas because our main tasks are to ensure that materials and cargo arrive to the factories on time, but also to deliver cost savings,” she said. “During the Mendix Hackathon I was able to submit an idea for an application to optimize the use of containers. Right now, this is something our team will do with an algorithm in Excel and it takes us about 15 minutes to run each time. With Mendix, it can take just a few seconds to perform that same task, and we also have added transparency.”

The hackathons, which are now hosted on a quarterly basis in Europe and Asia, offer team members with a passion for technology to foster collaboration and creativity.

Manufacturing Efficiency on the Shopfloor

Replacing paper and Excel-based processes is not just explored during hackathons, but a key use of Mendix across Schaeffler’s shopfloors around the globe.

As a developer, Reddy is focused on delivering web and mobile applications for Schaeffler’s shopfloor employees to improve communication and transparency in Europe. “One of the applications I am working on today will be used to track shopfloor data on a daily basis to see trends in production and have insight into whether things are on schedule. The data can also be used for reporting and analysis,” said Reddy.

“Let’s say you need a new set of data related to particular target, so you need to add an input field. We can add an input field, modify the domain model, and get that into production in less than a day. The next day when production starts at 6:00 in the morning, the technology is already ahead of them. Because of the whole CI/CD process and using Sprintr and Teamserver, creating a package, and deploying it – responding quickly is quite simple for us,” he remarked.

Reddy is also in progress with two additional applications that will replace historically non-existent or Excel-based processes. One is a product catalog which will provide Schaeffler’s internal employees transparency into the applications the development team is working on to avoid duplication and find efficiency between teams who have similar use-cases or needs.

The second is a tool to simulate and optimize lot sizes – or how many parts of a product are going to be produced in a specific time period. The application, which integrates with SAP, will allow the team to simulate the best way to produce a specific quantity of multiple products based on the plant’s capacity and the demand.

Another use case in a Schaeffler plant supports 1,000 employees and will soon be rolled to an additional 5,000 – 7,000 users across the country. The application replaces the historically manual and disparate process of monitoring machine and product quality as part of their Total Productive Maintenance (TPM).

“As a machine operator or a shopfloor worker I now have one single point of access to all the documents and data I need to work with,” said John.

“This was a solution that went through the original IT demand process and was always postponed due to a lack of capacity,” he added. “Now, this team in the region had a chance to realize something on their own in just six months.”

“Historically there had been this friction between the development team and employees on the shopfloor because the communication wasn’t great. They weren’t always happy with the solutions we could provide and the time it would take,” said Reddy.

“The main reason we selected Mendix for these projects is because of how fast we could get them implemented for the teams on the shopfloor. They were able to see things more quickly and be more vocal about what was and wasn’t working, and that’s the advantage I’ve seen with collaboration in Mendix.”

Empowering Enterprise Software Delivery

Demonstrating value and building a community of contributors remains critical to Schaeffler’s vision to democratize software delivery within a standardized platform and approach.

“I see Mendix as part of a self-service landscape. We want to spread this technology into other regions and start hierarchically, taking that hub-and-spoke model where the regions can build up their own capability to deliver Mendix applications,” said John.

Executing this requires a shift in organizational thinking which Reddy already has observed. “What I hear from other developers working in Mendix is that they are able to get experience across the entire software development process,” he said. “They learn about the back-end, domain modeling, and the front-end. It makes their work more interesting, and they don’t have to be constrained to a particular field. It’s enjoyable for a developer to see the whole spectrum and fulfill a requirement completely.”

It’s not just the community of low-code developers in Schaeffler that are experiencing improvements in their job satisfaction, it’s also the thousands of business users who have the capacity to request digital solutions that will make their work easier and get them into user’s hands quickly.

“One instance that stood out was with a team in HR who wanted to create a simple user form. They were expecting to see small updates every two weeks like they were used to in the traditional delivery timelines. After two days, their Mendix developer came back and showed them what was done and asked what to work on next,” said John.