Globalization is creating many new competitive pressures for manufacturers that are responding by making new technology investments to improve agility, meet customized product requests, and optimize new product introduction cycles. Pressure on pricing is increasing, but margins need to be maintained and costs managed without sacrificing quality. How can manufacturers do more for less?
Many firms are turning to mobile tablets to simplify internal business operations and help employees perform process-based tasks more efficiently by connecting them wirelessly to on-premises systems or the cloud. Information quality is improved across the organization while delivering important data to the point of performance where workers access and record information. This gives companies more visibility into their operations, and allows them to excel in a number of identified, key operational areas, such as inventory control, materials management, and shipping and receiving.
Improving productivity is the number one reason driving mobile adoption in manufacturing, where companies are more receptive to embracing the technology because of growing familiarity with consumer tablets, the presence of a more robust application ecosystem, and recent improvements in wireless infrastructure.
Chip giant Intel has studied manufacturing productivity extensively, and research at its factories shows a 17% increase in productivity, based on completed work orders. When setting up thousands of tool parameters, accuracy was far greater than using print versions, saving 300 pages per tool with a 30% reduction in time.
While it’s appealing to purchase commercial tablets, you can’t put one in a plastic or rubber case and assume the device is ready to use in a plant. A VDC Research study shows a much higher average failure rate for commercial-grade tablet PCs at 16.7% compared with an 8.5% failure rate for rugged units, which are generally certified for the military standard MIL-STD – 810G. The certification requires at least a four-foot drop rating, and addresses resistance to heavy vibrations and extreme temperature fluctuations. Intrinsically safe tablets are certified for hazardous locations with potentially explosive atmospheres.
Tablets are often subjected to dust and grime in industrial environments, and could also be exposed to water. Look for Ingress Protection certification of IP54 and higher when selecting a device.
Synchronization with backend systems is also taking place in real-time, providing better quality information. For instance, production line managers are receiving immediate updates from the shop floor and monitoring production workflows so resources can be reallocated where needed; and financial managers are running data mining applications that analyze shop floor data for the latest costing information.
A mobile computing solution should include a vision on how mobility is to be deployed within the existing technology infrastructure. Mobility success is heavily dependent on upfront planning and framework.
Using rugged tablets improves visibility into plant operations. PHOTO: XPLORE TECHNOLOGIES
The first step in a mobile strategy is analyzing business processes, finding ways to improve productivity and removing waste – key principles from the ‘lean’ playbook. Identifying use cases for mobility and segmenting targeted users must also be done in the early stages.
This is followed by developing a technology architecture foundation that includes security and performance requirements. The last step is examining digital assets and delivering the right information, at the right time, to the right device.
Specific needs must be considered. For example, a large aerospace manufacturer needed a wide-screen for technicians viewing schematic drawings, along with the capability to access multiple application windows, running simultaneously.
At a food manufacturing plant, where warehouse workers receiving inventory move perishable items onto forklift trucks from the dock to cold storage, a tablet must be viewable when taken outdoors in potentially bright sunlight. It must also be dock-mountable on a forklift and withstand extreme temperature fluctuations when the vehicle moves in and out of refrigeration.
Other considerations include ergonomics, size and weight, and battery life. Will workers be wearing gloves when inputting data? Do they need a special tablet harness when climbing ladders? The size and weight of a tablet has bearing on the model selected. Feel the difference between holding a two-pound versus four-pound bag of sugar after one hour. And finally, when it comes to battery life, a tablet must last a full shift, as much as eight hours, and offer hot-swap capabilities.
Study existing pain points in workflows, so more customized mobile applications can be designed for specific roles or tasks within manufacturing processes.
Choose one functional area that offers the fastest ROI for productivity gains – such as automating paper-based processes – and expand slowly from there with small, measurable wins.
Finally, enlist senior management support and keep user training at the forefront for best possible results in your mobile innovation journey.
Scott Ball is the Canadian director, sales at Xplore Technologies, a global provider of rugged tablets for manufacturers.