One might think that the use of mobile devices is something new for the shop floor. The recent “buzz” we are now seeing around the growing popularity of smart devices is certainly getting a good amount of publicity lately. It is true that smart phones did not really become widely used by the general public until about 10 years ago, and tablets are even newer. These mobile devices have come to permeate our personal lives. Everywhere we go, we pull out a smart device and check our emails, tweets, and texts from colleagues, friends, and family.
Many are now extrapolating this trend to the factories, pointing to all the new functionality now available. An article I came across on Cisco’s website notes that as of 2012, 80% of manufacturers were developing some mobile applications. A study by Sage North America found that 85% of decision-makers say mobile technology is improving their firm’s productivity.
There’s no mystery to this trend. We can all imagine a quality inspector who sees a problem on a production line. To fully record it and initiate a corrective action, she has to return to her office and use her desktop computer. If she gets delayed on the way through the plant — and chances are she will — how much time is lost? Now imagine those kinds of delays happening in production lines, shipping docks, warehouses, and maintenance teams all across the enterprise. That’s a lot of time wasted simply because the company’s software is tied to the desktop.
Mobile technology eliminates these delays, so can make problem-resolution almost instantaneous. Multiplied across a global company, we’re talking about potentially huge improvements in efficiency and cost – in complete alignment with Lean manufacturing objectives.
Déjà vu all Over Again?
Here’s the catch. Manufacturers have been operating under a mobile, wireless environment for the past couple of decades! Remember RFID? How about all the bar code scanners and portable devices mounted to fork lifts, Lean supermarkets and other inventory tracking devices? From a manufacturer’s perspective, I would propose that the rest of the world is now finally catching up with us, and all the benefits of mobile technology. Welcome to the party!
With so many devices already out there, the addition of new smart devices actually causes new problems that many have not yet fully realized or contemplated. For example, manufacturers now have an even more pressing need to standardize their apps so as to run across hardware platforms – both those that have been running on the shop floor for the past 20 years as well as the new ones now being rolled out. So, what you have now is not so much a Greenfield mobile technology deployment, but instead, a Brownfield scenario whereby a significant existing hardware and software infrastructure must be matched to the new technology now being offered. Devices have been adopted at different times over the years, so manufacturers have now accumulated legacy devices, mobile phones, tablets, laptops and desktops.
In a manufacturing environment, this platform diversity can be a real challenge for the IT team responsible for maintaining and supporting the infrastructure. It can also cause problems for end users, who have to adjust to different menus and user interfaces when they’re on the shop floor, the lunch room, their office, or on the road. It would be far easier and more productive if everyone had the same experience, no matter what device they happen to be using at any given time.
This is why I think it’s good news that Microsoft has addressed this issue with Windows 8. Whether or not you like their specific solution, it’s a move in the right direction. For personal use, a consistent platform is merely a convenience. But for manufacturers, a single IT platform can mean easier implementation, lower costs, and greater productivity across the enterprise.
Microsoft’s vision of creating consistency from both a hardware and software perspective is novel, and one that could make a real difference on the effectiveness of manufacturing operations – both on and off the shop floor.