Manufacturing in the age of the app

In ten years time, the word ‘app’ won’t be exclusive to Generation Y and their mobile phones. Smart manufacturers will use apps on smartphones, PDAs and tablet computers to improve business operations, increase customer experience and attract new business opportunities.

Already, manufacturing executives and operations management can use mobile apps (‘applications’, or software) remotely to gain critical insights in to their production processes, perform inspection and maintenance tasks, receive productivity and logistics reports, and increase worker safety.

However, uptake has been relatively slow and, according to Mary Brittain-White, co-founder and chief executive officer of Retriever Communications, this is due to cost, ease-of-use, and an understanding of the benefits of incorporating the technology in to existing operations.

“Every manufacturer is different but some of the roles that benefit most from mobile devices include quality inspectors, inventory managers, and engineers fixing equipment in factories or on customer sites. However, I would emphasis the quality and compliance capability as it is very quick to implement and has a fast payback in reduced reworks and paperwork for safety compliance,” she told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“Mobile technology will also encourage intercompany communication and knowledge sharing in the manufacturing industry, and bridge silos in the production and maintenance life cycle.”

Software vs hardware

Retriever Communications develops software that is compatible with different mobile operating systems such as iOS (exclusive to Apple’s iPad), Android (favoured by HTC, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, Motorola and Huawei devices) and Windows (used by Windows-branded offerings).

Manufacturers can either purchase these apps to use on their existing mobile devices, or go for devices already loaded with manufacturing software, such as Intermec’s rugged offerings with IP67 sealing.

Tony Repaci, managing director of Intermec Australia and New Zealand, says manufacturers should first identify where they will use the mobile device – such as the warehouse – and then identify what features they require, for example barcoding, scanning and printing.

“The primary areas that the warehouse is looking for mobile improvement are for: increased accuracy and productivity; data capture at the point of the transaction or process; reduced operating costs; increased customer satisfaction; improved workforce morale and safety; and revenue growth,” he told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

Retriever Communication’s Brittain-White agrees that starting simple is the best policy, and advises manufacturers investing in software to look for a system that is above all easy-to-use.

“It’s paramount that mobile applications are well designed, easy to use, fit for purpose, and end user friendly. Field technicians should be able to have a solution that reflects their company’s processes and customer needs, not some software vendor’s idea of a standard service process that their competition may also use,” she said.

“Also we recommended native applications as they can utilise the device’s features such as camera, barcode/RFID scanner, screen rotation, GPS, and gestures (e.g. flicking) – they are quicker and have no reliance on mobile connectivity availability.

“Last but not least, some businesses pursue the idea of the perfect mobile app. They over-engineer and thus create unnecessary complexity rather than starting simple.”

Industry take-up

Manufacturers should not only consider mobile devices and apps in their own processes, but also how they can use them to improve user experience and attract new customers.

An example of a vendor taking advantage of mobile use is Nissan, with its smartphone app that allows LEAF drivers to be in direct contact with their electric vehicle at all times to check vital data including battery status.

When using apps to attract new business however, manufacturers need to look not only at how customers use apps, but also at their own web presence and how effective their marketing is. Though this is arguably the role of marketers, the reality is that managers of SMEs often wear multiple hats, including MD, operations management and marketing.  

A study released in November called ‘Telsyte Australian Smartphone Market Study 2011-2015’ estimated that 10 million Australians would purchase smartphones between 2011 and 2015, taking the total number of smartphone users to 18.5 million.

Another study by IPSOS Research on behalf of Google found that Australia has the second highest global smartphone usage, above the US and the UK in terms of mobile use per person. [View an overview of the findings published on The Age website last year.]

They also found that one in three internet searches is used to find local businesses, which is especially significant for SMEs. However, 80% of Australian businesses don’t have mobile-optimised websites, and many think having an app alone is all they need for a successful mobile strategy, the survey found.

One example of how mobile technology can increase sales is a mobile advertising technique using QR – or Quick Response – barcodes, which consumers can ‘scan’ using a mobile phone  and are then automatically transferred to a vendor or manufacturer website, where they can receive more information about the advertised product or service. Placing advertisements in ‘new media’ including on websites and in mobile search results is another technique manufacturers should be aware of.

IPSOS Research found that 60% of respondents said they had noticed mobile advertisements, including in mobile search results and in apps. Once the user gets to the website however, it needs to be easy to use.

“People can’t buy from you if they can’t navigate your website. And not having to enter all of your credit card information into a form that’s difficult to do so,” said Ryan Hayward, APAC mobile product marketing manager for Google.

“As one-click shopping evolves, like we have on our desktops, and as people become more used to it, then this number’s going to increase.”

Digital stigma

According to Intermec’s Repaci, manufacturers would do well to shake the stigma of the digital age and look at the real benefits offered by incorporating mobile technology in to their businesses.

“Distribution Centers that have deployed mobility solutions, including voice-enabled technologies, have seen accuracies greater than 99.9% and productivity increases of 35% or more. They have also reported decreases in workforce turnover, injuries and training costs,” he said.

“The industry needs to ensure that the total cost of ownership for the entire solution is accounted for, not just the bits and pieces. A solution that takes into account training, admin costs, device management, support, scalability, consumables and parts management, deployed by a solution provider enabling real business benefits to the organisation.”

In Brittain-White’s experience, the main hurdle hindering uptake from manufacturers is awareness of the benefits mobile technology can provide.

“Manufacturers are not often aware of the vast business improvement impact. Our customers have achieved up to a 30% increase in the number of completed assignments each day after implementing a Retriever field service management solution,” she said.

“It used to be cost – but with most employees and sub contractors now having smartphones the key capital requirement has disappeared – so the implementation can be quick and thereafter it is only operational cost which is always covered easily by immediate savings in administration alone.”