Time to get on board the mobile technology train

PDA's running Windows Mobile software remain a major part of manufacturing's mobile technology landscape, however the meteoric uptake of smart phones and tablets in the consumer market has also led to a gradual acceptance of these devices across the shop floor as well as into management offices.

According to a recent Gartner research study, CIOs working at manufacturing companies now rank the investment in mobile technologies as a top priority.  

This focus will have repercussions on how manufacturers allocate their IT budgets, resulting in greater mobility-related purchases such as smart phones, tablets, mobile security products, wireless networks and, most likely, cloud-based storage services. These types of changes are expected to dramatically impact how processes are executed on the shop floor. To start, users will start requesting to execute production processes, input or view work instructions or evaluate manufacturing intelligence from their hand-held devices.  

However, no purchase will be made unless a return on investment can be justified. Industry consensus is that workforce productivity will improve by extending the decision-making environment from the desktop to a mobile device, resulting in increased employee productivity and overall equipment effectiveness.  

Access to greater operational intelligence, faster, can also provide sufficient benefits to ensure continued mobility purchases. As manufacturing research, design and production have become such global activities, gaining access and availability to these knowledge workers in real-time, on a 24/7 basis, offers the potential for even further productivity gains from the implementation of mobility solutions.

Naaman Shibi, VP Australasia with Techs4biz (Pervidi Software), says manufacturers are moving fast to take advantage of mobile technology.

"Technology is changing rapidly, and mobile devices are now easily accessible, plus the new "digital" generation (Gen Y) is quite comfortable with mobile devices compared to Gen X and the Baby Boomers."

Shibi says data accuracy and replacing paper are just two of the key advantages.

"By replacing paper in maintenance, QA, inspections, audit, observations, work orders for example, manufacturers are operating in real time, saving paper, saving data entry, standardising the process, with the ability to access emails and other company applications while away from the desk; now that most of the warehouse, stock/inventory and material handling functions are automated, manufactures should move into replacing paper in other areas on the manufacturing floor such as recording maintenance of plant and equipment, safety inspections, pre-start checks for heavy machinery, audits, observations, and surveys.

"Companies should also look outside the plant, with field service/maintenance of equipment recorded on mobile devices

Shibi says smart phones and tablets now offer PDA-like functionality, often at a fraction of the cost.  

"For example, the average size of a PDA screen is 3.5" whereas many smart-phones now sport a 5" screen and the average tablet screen size now at 10.  

"This increased screen real-estate increases efficiency whilst performing mobile inspections as well as markedly enhancing the end-user experience.

"Tablets and smart phones are also able to capture high-resolution images which can then be annotated using the touch-screen, as well as using the in-built camera for barcode scanning. With optional hardware attachments now available to facilitate the use of RFID scanners, the need for a dedicated PDA unit to complete inspections in the field is becoming increasingly marginalised," Shibi told Manufacturers' Monthly

Which operating system?

While recent surveys reveal Android as the dominate operating system outside the US, industry experts say manufacturers should first ask themselves where is there data?  

For example, if you keep your contacts, mail, and calendar in Google, they say you should have Android. However, if you keep your contacts, mail, and calendar in the Apple iCloud, you should have an iPhone. Regardless of the merits of one phone over the other on an app by app, feature by feature basis, what normally matters the most is how seamless the phone integrates with contacts, mail, and calendar.

Although each of the big players provide some grudging accommodation of their competitor's services, the experience is often sub-par. To have the optimal experience, one should stay all Apple, all Android, or all Microsoft.

Shibi warns that when it comes to flexibility, Apple is more of a "closed application" and is tightly controlled by Apple.

"Regarding interface, most of the commercial applications are Microsoft based and a key issue is to seamlessly interface between the mobile device and the corporate applications. Currently Android has easier interface capabilities with Microsoft," Shibi said.   

Integration

A recently published Deloitte Access Economics Report commissioned by the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA) 'Mobile Nation: The economic and social impacts of mobile technology,' revealed that the current upsurge of mobile technologies will result in an economic productivity benefit of $11.8bn for the period of 2012-2025.  

That, according to Paul Goepfert, marketing manager with Pronto Software, is a pretty powerful argument for why every manufacturer should be assessing their mobile strategy in 2013.  

"Mobile technology should be seen as a gateway for opportunity and a tool to facilitate all dimensions of a workplace. If CIOs aren't acting on mobile implementation, their employees will (or have already) beat them to it."

Goepfert says anytime, anywhere access to people and information is a critical element to the success of business in this increasingly data-driven age.  

"Whether we like it or not, decision makers need to be connected and available to manage information and make decisions quickly.  

"In recent years, there has been a lot of focus applied to the way consumers use mobile devices and ways marketers can reach them through mobile apps, social media and advertising.  

"However, there hasn't been nearly as much attention applied to the way everyday people – executives, managers and employees alike – use mobile devices and connect to the world throughout their work-life," Goepfert told Manufacturers' Monthly.

"Mobile technologies are now woven throughout the fabric of the workplace. It is a very rare occurrence (for many) to be out of reach of our mobile device, which is connected to our personal and professional online information channels and profile.

"Once a phenomenon but now the norm, BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) is now a part of everyday life for most Australians who deal with an IT system.  

"Manufacturing is no exception to all this, but it does have its own intricacies when it comes to using mobile devices and software to improve bottom line business outcomes.  

"For a successful business in manufacturing to run efficiently it relies on flexible, reliable and real-time data. Business software solutions such as ERP have long been drivers of successful manufacturing processes.  

"Today, with the integration of business intelligence (BI) and data analytics tools, the industry now has a wide range to tools that can support great visibility of processes via mobile devices.

"The integration of mobile technologies into manufacturing process allows employees to access data faster than ever before. From the warehouse, shopfloor and on the move through the distribution chain, data is easy to source.

"The challenge for many businesses now, however, revolves around making sense of deep business information at our fingertips – there is a big difference between access to data and access to business intelligence and insightful data. For example production managers could view the output of their production lines and scrap levels on mobile phones in real time through a feed from the shop floor into their ERP system," Goepfert said. 

Industrial tablets

With 2.4 million tablest sold in Australia last year, Jason Lee, Panasonic Australia's Toughbook Marketing Manager, says the market is booming.

"While that figure includes consumers and industry, what works in consumerland almost always carries over to industry. We expect the industrial tablet market to grow 20% or more this year alone," Lee told Manufacturers' Monthly. 

"Our industrial customers are demanding something portable and rugged to replace a various number of devices, including hand-helds, PDAs and laptops. The more mobile the better, but they still need the power of a laptop. A ruggudised tablet is ideal for manufacturers, as well as many other industries.

"Our recently released Toughpad FZ-G1 tablet, for example, is perfect for businesses in mission-critical and mobile roles in sectors such as manufacturing, defence, utilities, mining and healthcare.

"It features a 10.1" sunlight viewable touchscreen with next generation IPS outdoor display technology and WUXGA 1,920 x 1,200 resolution, for easy outside usage, and is powered by an intelligrnt Intel Core i5-3537U 1.9GHz vPro processor for faster operation and enhanced device management.  

"The lightweight tablet boasts military standard specifications, IP65 certification, dust and water resistance, and is able to withstand drops from 1.2m.

"The 1.1kg tablet comes with a 128GB solid state hard drive, with 4GB of RAM, which can be upgraded if necessary."

While it has no built-in keyboard, Lee says it is ideal for manufacturers with check lists. "Plus it can be customised, with a bar code reader for asset tagging, LAN and Serial Ports and/or smart card readers for added security," Lee said. 

In the warehouse

Freddy Fam, Intermec's Product Marketing Manager for APAC, says the mobility component of computing devices is still a key requirement in warehouse operations.  

"There is an increasing desire for mobile computing solutions to become an integral and seamless part of warehousing operations and processes.  

"We design our mobile computers to seamlessly interact within the environmental constraints, effectively as an extension of the worker, not a hindrance to job performance."  

Fam says technological advances are enabling our mobile computers to do more in the warehouse environment, with less weight and size: "There was once a desire for mobile computers to work and almost mimic the pen and paper system as there was a perception that a shift too far away from these working styles would be difficult to adopt. Now we're seeing a new generation of warehouse workers more comfortable using technology to complete their tasks efficiently. This is making purpose built smart computers within the warehouse a more valuable asset than before.  

"As with computers in the consumer space, warehouse professionals have increasingly been adopting a diverse range of operating systems for use within the warehouse in conjunction with their mobile computing devices.  

"Where once Windows was largely the only operating system utilised within the warehouse and supply chain, we're seeing organisations wanting applications to function agnostically across operating systems. The ability of a mobile computing solution to evolve with warehouse operations over time is a key advantage.  

A mobile platform with a core architecture across form factors vastly increases the ROI of the project, as it is future-proofed against changes in the organisation," Fam told Manufacturers' Monthly.