Process data integration: open source or proprietary software?

Frederik Van Leeckwyck on

In 2018, Belgian yeast supplier Algist Bruggeman replaced its proprietary historian software with Factry’s open source-based historian. Next, a custom reporting tool and MES were built on top of the historian, once again with open technology at the core. We asked decision-maker Ivo Lemmens why he chose to switch from proprietary to open source software for industrial data integration.

“I discovered the world of open source software just a few years ago,” says Ivo Lemmens, the driving force behind the company’s ongoing process automation. “Right then, I started to realise that businesses should look beyond their own little private islands. Surely, process-related software will always be proprietary in one way or another, as no company wants to spill the beans and let everyone in on their production secrets. However, if people start to collaborate more, wonderful things can happen.”

What prompted you to implement Factry Historian?

We believed that the more data would be available, the more this could work to our advantage.

The main reason why we started collecting real-time process data using Factry Historian was our desire to get recipe management, process data management, and preventive maintenance up to the top IT layer of production as soon as possible. In particular, because at that level, the biggest progress is being made.

It’s almost impossible to keep track of every new development and feature. Fortunately, the people at Factry are there to keep me in the loop."

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yeast dewatering
Yeast dewatering equipment

What were some of the other key factors?

I felt very confident about the technology behind it, especially since the InfluxDB database is considered to be an extremely solid and stable system. It is no coincidence that it is also used by huge organisations such as NASA or IBM. At the same time, the Grafana interface is built with widespread technologies such as HTML, Golang and JavaScript. Few things could go wrong. As it is not rocket science, it did not imply great risks.”

Factry combines expert knowledge on open technology with a very direct and professional approach, like you would expect from renowned names in the industry.

“Another key factor was its usability and modern look and feel. The thing with proprietary industrial software is that it lags a bit behind on the fast-evolving IT world, while a smooth user experience is crucial for a good working atmosphere. Working with Factry software often feels like playing a board game: it doesn’t need a lengthy explanation. Through trial-and-error, you can move forward with it and gain experience you can build on.”

“The people behind the software also played a crucial role in our decision,” Lemmens adds. “We instantly felt like we were on the same page, which turned out to be the case. Factry truly understands the tools and technology they work with; InfluxDB and Grafana are in their blood. Expert knowledge is combined with a direct and professional approach, like you’d expect from renowned names in the industry.”

What, for you, was the biggest difference between open and proprietary?

When we still had a proprietary historian running, it was barely used. Even though we had hoped it would be a flexible and accomplished tool, this was not the case. A lot of custom-made software had to be written in order to be able to report the production data we required. Naturally, custom developments were also needed for the open source historian and visualisation tool, but now it is completely tailored to our needs.”

Who uses the software, and to which end?

“Today, about 25 people work with it on a daily basis, ranging from people at maintenance and production over to floor operators. The software allows them to build custom dashboards of visualisations that are useful to them in a specific context, which makes them very willing to use it. The proof of its success lies in the fact that I get a lot of questions. ‘How would you do this?’, ‘How can you visualise that?’ Two weeks later, I notice they’ve figured out things I hadn’t before, or discovered features that I wasn’t even aware of.”

How does that reflect on the working environment?

Very positively. The proprietary historian we used before was overly complex. You had to read half the manual before you could actually start doing something. Instead of being held back by a rigid system or static reporting, people now feel encouraged to propose innovations, without having to fear huge costs, and risking the standard ‘no’ to their optimisation requests.”

What advice would you give to businesses with similar challenges?

Just give it a try. Many great initiatives fall to pieces because they are overwrought or overly engineered. Overthinking it for two years doesn’t bring you any closer to a solution. As the components are open source, you can simply download them online, and start playing around with them immediately. That’s a world away from having an engineer come over to install and parametrise an application, and exactly getting the results you signed up for.”

In my experience, open source software makes people smarter.

Ivo Lemmens
Senior Project Manager Automation at Algist Bruggeman