Software as a Business Worry – Volkswagen Is Just the First

Everybody involved in the business of manufacturing has been shocked by the revelations of the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. It seems incredible to many of us that a company so steeped in success and growth would make such a clearly illegal move in order to grow its business. This event highlights a real change in the world of manufacturing that has been accelerating over the last few years – software as a definer of functionality. There are many exciting opportunities for software to enhance products and there are also innumerable opportunities for making mistakes of varying degrees of seriousness.

Software Makes Everything Flexible

Software as a part of the bill of materials (BOM) is nothing new, but defining what software is actually used in a single product is fraught with difficulty. Before examining this idea further, it is interesting to consider that if Volkswagen had to add special hardware in order to defeat the environmental tests its cars underwent, somebody would have put a stop to it. The BOM would have clearly indicated the parts required to deliver the functionality. The cost, requirements, and many other considerations would have been carefully examined – it would have needed a very high level of collusion to get a hardware defeat device through the design, manufacturing, and quality processes.

Given that the software to implement the test defeat was implemented by the engine electronics supplier nearly eight years ago, it is probably fair to assume that the functionality required was an integral part of the software source code used for engine management. This most likely included emissions of an entire family of common rail diesel engines. The fact that the specific functionality was compiled and loaded into production, cars could have gone unnoticed outside the engine management software department. For each specific model and engine there would be a single, or multiple, engine management software blocks to to be burnt into memory and installed in the car. Voila, almost nobody needs to know what is in that software. The question remaining is, “Why this was done?” Perhaps there was pressure to be the “cleanest” diesel from management and marketing, but from an implementation viewpoint. It was not something hard to hide.

How to Handle the the Growing Complexity of Products and Associated Software?

So, how do we manage software in complex products? The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) promises to multiply the amount of software used in manufacturing by an order of magnitude, at least. Everything from simple factory sensors to civil airliners will be “enhanced” by the addition of intelligent software. It will make them better able to communicate with other devices and with the real world. Every block of software will need to be managed through development, introductions, operations, services, and replacements just like hardware is today.

PLM systems are very good at handling physical product lifecycles, and most can cope with software blocks as described above. PLM vendors have recognized this deficiency and are extending capabilities to include application lifecycle management (ALM), either through homegrown capabilities, acquisition, or partnership. However, managing functionality and versions within a software program is very complex. Adding a single “If …the…else” statement block in a program can completely change its functionality. This is great for fast deployment of new functionality, but a nightmare for security and those who need to ensure that functionality is as described. Indeed, functionality as described is not enough: proving that what is delivered does what is intended is extremely difficult in complex software. If there is any tendency to be insincere about meeting the requirements, all bets on actual functionality are off.

What Does Your System Actually Do?

The Volkswagen case is a huge one, but we do not expect it to be the last. Products with complex software are easily manipulated and testing for unknown functionality during design and manufacturing quality audits is nigh on impossible. You can test to see if a function works, but it is hard to test to see if a piece of software does something that is not in the specification. A completely innocent and fun example of hidden software is the “Easter eggs” in Microsoft products. This is where engineers have hidden everything from pictures of a teddy bear to complex games deep inside Microsoft products. None were tested but many are admired, once found!

In today’s environment, industrial software is a very serious subject. Since the Volkswagen case broke there have already been other, as yet unsubstantiated, accusations against industrial manufacturers and we expect there to be more in the coming months. If the manufacturing industry is going to avoid reoccurrences of this type of behavior, it can only be done by people and their behavior. Some will know of the Seven Social Sins, popularized by Mahatma Gandhi, two of which are: Knowledge without Character and Commerce without Morality.

Maybe we can be cheeky and add Software without Sincerity as an essential sin to avoid in the IIoT world.

Be sure to join me on Tuesday, October 20 at 2:00 pm EDT for a free webinar where I'll be discussing the latest IIoT research from our survey, and how IIoT is allowing leading manufacturers to connect their customers into every business process across the value chain and enable a truly customer-centric manufacturing organization. Click below to reserve your spot now!

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All entries in this Industrial Transformation blog represent the opinions of the authors based on their industry experience and their view of the information collected using the methods described in our Research Integrity. All product and company names are trademarks™ or registered® trademarks of their respective holders. Use of them does not imply any affiliation with or endorsement by them.

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