The Role of APIs In Manufacturing

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Application programming interfaces (APIs) and certain industries seem like a match made in heaven, and the studies often reflect that reality. Take Technology, Business/IT Services, and Banking/Finance, for example. According to Postman’s 2023 State of the API Report, these spaces account for 29%, 27%, and 11% of total API usage respectively.

But that report also highlights a range of other industries, such as Retail, Advertising, and Marketing, in which APIs are also used. For example, we recently covered the emerging role of APIs in the Automotive sector, which, according to Postman, accounts for 2% of total API usage. In writing that post, and this one, we wanted to dig into how APIs are used in these niches.

Those who work in the Manufacturing space account for 2% of API usage by industry. And although that number may sound small, it’s significant. Not least because, as we’ll see below, APIs can have a massive impact in giving manufacturing companies a competitive edge. Below, we’ll dive into these areas to see what sort of capabilities APIs enable for manufacturing.

The Rise of APIs in Manufacturing

The use of APIs in the manufacturing space isn’t as new as one might think: back in 2018, we wrote an article on the idea that APIs are powering the next industrial revolution. And while the pandemic may have disrupted that process, the ball is still rolling.

In that piece, sort of a prequel to this one, we talked about some of the differences between traditional manufacturing processes, like die stamping, extrusion, and injection molding, and the newer manufacturing processes, like 3D printing, CNC milling, water jetting, and laser cutting.

Although those lists are far from exhaustive, the stark contrasts between them highlight how many manufacturing processes are now digital (as opposed to analog) in nature. And, especially in 2023, where there are digital processes, there are APIs.

APIs on the Factory Floor

The manufacturing space is packed with abbreviations (PLC, ERP, SCADA, CAD, CAM). While they may be a newer member of the gang, APIs have rapidly established themselves as something of a necessity on a modern factory floor.

Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) were created with automation in mind, so their meshing with APIs — which also focus on automation — is a natural step in their evolution. PLC APIs enable communication between PLCs and higher-level systems like SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) systems for enhanced real-time monitoring and control.

On the production side, CAD (Computer Aided Design) and CAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing) software enables designers and engineers to transfer designs to manufacturing processes and machinery, creating prototypes, finished products, and production runs. And APIs are having an impact here, too.

Products like Autodesk’s Fusion 360 API, for example, allow users “to write a program that will perform the same types of operations you can perform when using Fusion 360 interactively.” In a nutshell, automated prototyping and production. Autodesk has already touched on how such technology, coupled with generative AI and robotics, could transform what the future of product design looks like.

IIoT, Real-Time Monitoring and Control of Equipment

When most people allude to the Internet of Things (IoT), they’re often referring to home automation. Speakers that automatically lower in volume when the phone rings, for example. In manufacturing, however, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) offers potential far beyond this.

Thanks to APIs, sensors, actuators, and other smart devices can communicate information that informs machine-specific data collection, remote monitoring, and predictive maintenance. All of this information can be integrated with known product data, such as cost, defect rates, and maintenance schedules, to form an accurate picture of upcoming expenditures.

Plus, since APIs can track and monitor the status of machines in real-time without someone having to walk around manually to check on machines, this process is far less disruptive than stopping down to dismantle and inspect parts. Instead, reporting can be built into notification and planning tools (like email, Slack, or ERP applications) that employees already use so the appropriate parties can take action.

Strengthening Supply Chains With APIs

The role of APIs in manufacturing isn’t limited solely to newer, digital processes. Simon Peel, Chief Strategy Officer of API transformation company Jitterbit, has previously stated that that “the modern factory floor relies on APIs.” He compellingly argues that APIs have reshaped both logistics and administrative processes.

In supply chain management, for example, APIs are being used to connect different stakeholders like suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers, who have previously operated in isolation…ending the need for regular phone calls about “how things are progressing.”

Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems are used to manage inventory, production planning, and resource allocation. When deployed in tandem with APIs, those systems can be connected with other apps in the manufacturing process, streamlining the flow of information and materials across the supply chain network.

As well as describing how APIs have enabled companies to get real-time updates on the progress of products through the supply chain, tracking incoming parts and outgoing goods, Peel explains how APIs can improve the accuracy of accounts receivable and accounts payable by linking the financial records of multiple supply chain partners.

In other words, even when APIs aren’t being used directly in manufacturing, their presence can be used to streamline back-office processes. For many businesses in this industry, this secondary form of implementation could act as a gateway to wider adoption.

The Future of Manufacturing and APIs

In their blog post on API interfaces for digital business in machinery and plant engineering, Cloudflight summarizes a variety of use cases for APIs in manufacturing that include the following:

  • Production: IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things), integration of shop-floor processes with business-IT, and plant automation PaaS.
  • Quality control: Exchange of quality data, integration of quality management in production processes, purchasing, and sales.
  • Purchasing and logistics: Connecting suppliers, vendors, and service providers.
  • Service and after sales: Smart services, digital usage, operating models, predictive maintenance, and energy efficiency.

It’s exciting to see companies like Cloudflight looking at how to use APIs to hook these products together and move away from the data silos that have traditionally plagued the industry. Still, it’s even more exciting to consider how APIs could revolutionize the space in years to come.

In quality control, for example, APIs can be connected to manufacturing systems to allow for real-time quality monitoring, defect detection, and process adjustments. In short, such integrations could produce a truly automated production line that can monitor, tweak, and improve its own performance.

As businesses come to understand the competitive edge that using APIs in the manufacturing space can grant, we think they’ll find it difficult to resist their lure. As for that 2% figure we alluded to at the beginning of this piece? Don’t expect it to remain that low for long…