Ten years ago, an employee at a manufacturing firm would have to use pen and paper to conduct a plant floor inspection or quality control check.
With handwritten notes, there was the potential for mistakes. The time it would take for a discovered problem to be addressed would vary considering how long it took for someone to learn about it and find the resources to solve it.
But as mobile technology has advanced, those same workers now have the option to instead use a mobile device such as a tablet or an iPad to perform the same functions. And those that do are finding that they are saving time and money while reducing the risk for errors and increasing safety in the workplace.
Manufacturers may have been slow to adopt mobility in the workplace but that reluctance seems to be gradually fading as once more conservative manufacturers are viewing the use of mobile as a way to get a leg up on their competition, notes Heather Ashton, research Manager for IDC Manufacturing and Retail Insights.
Manufacturing employees "are becoming the smart connected worker by taking the technology with them," she notes. "They're moving throughout their workday connected at all times, which is huge."
Not only they are adopting the use of mobile more, they are actually developing their own applications.
According to a spring 2012 IDC survey (see chart), nearly 40 percent of 373 surveyed manufacturers across a variety of sectors said they intended to develop half or more of their applications for mobile platforms in 2012.
"Almost 80 percent were developing some kind of mobile app," Ashton says. "2012 was a year when we really saw mobile taking off in a totally different direction in the field of manufacturing."
Eaton Corp. is one example of a company that has developed its own mobile application to enhance operations.
John Gercak, vice president of information technology for Eaton's $4 billion vehicle group, said his team in the United States and India spent about seven months developing the "Powertrac."
The mobile application, which went live last December, uses a global positioning system (GPS) on an iPad and a cellular network to track the company's test vehicles for supporting its products.
"With this app, the driver takes the iPad with them in the vehicle while on the track and we're able to see in real time on the Web exactly where the vehicle is at all times," he said. (See screen shot)
Gercak said this is particularly useful because "if there's a safety issue, we're able to tell and notify the drivers in advance so as to avoid any potential accidents."
"Before if a vehicle was broken down, we weren't able to know right away and contact the other drivers so from a safety perspective, it's very helpful," he added.
Overall, Ashton says companies are using mobile to improve safety and efficiency but also to ultimately drive bottom line savings and top-line revenue. But just how are they doing that? Using mobile applications or mobile devices give managers more operational visibility – meaning they are able to identify problems on the production line, drill down into problem areas and take action right on the work floor, notes Ashton.
Also, by being able to take pictures and videos during plant floor inspections, workers can capture quality issues and immediately communicate with the appropriate departments.
Kristin McClane, president of Milford, Ohio-based CIMx Software Inc., agrees that the use of mobile is transforming quality control management.
"If you're manufacturing an assembly of something and run into an issue, you'd have to contact a quality engineer to see what the problem is. And then in order for him to make a change, he'd have to go back to his PC (personal computer) at their desk and that could take hours if he gets pulled on 10 other fires on the way back there," McLane says. "With mobile, he could pull up a document on the fly. The speed of change is massive. The faster you can perform that quality check, the less money you lose."
CIMx makes software that allows workers to control manufacturing operations from a Web-based device such as a tablet, or IPad. In fact,CIMx claims to be the first software company to have created a web-enabled shop floor portal. Customers are mainly in the aerospace and defense, life sciences, electronics and heavy manufacturing industries.
Like Ashton, McLane believes that there's been a marked shift in perception on the part of manufacturers on the value of mobile.
"Two years ago, manufacturers didn't want anything ‘Apple' on the shop floor," she says. "But these days there's not as much pushback."
One of the biggest barriers to continued mobile application development is security concerns.
"Most manufacturers consider their manufacturing processes to be super top secret," McLane notes. "How they build is their competitive advantage. I'm not sure they will ever adopt the use of the cloud."
Ashton agrees that security is a valid concern and that selection of mobile applications must be well-researched.
"The potential for catastrophic security breaches caused by well-intended but poorly-implemented mobile apps cannot be overstated," she says.
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