The influence of mobile technology has expanded far beyond consumer markets. Increasingly, smartphones and tablets make their way into a variety of business sectors, including manufacturing. A recent article of Supply Chain Digital explains that industrial-level mobile computers have been around for a while now, but they've developed rapidly in recent years, forcing many organizations to update their entire information technology infrastructure.
Early Issues in Development
The supply chain news source explained manufacturers began using mobile computers in the middle of the '80s. However, these were generally limited in functionality. One of the greatest drawbacks of the technology was lack of readability in the field due to glare, which wasn't helped by the fact that screens were much smaller than today's mobile devices. What's more, the technology could be extremely sensitive to the elements, including moisture or falls from relatively short heights. Battery life was often shorter than the lifespan of a mayfly, and data captured by field computers was stored exclusively on the device. As a result, if workers needed to transfer data collected on the mobile tool, they would have to be physically connected to a central host system.
Since that time, field-tough tablets have become better acclimated to environments that aren't exactly technology friendly. At the same time, new capabilities have been added. For instance, many rugged tablets include bar code scanning tools, voice technology and RFID readers.
The upgrade in equipment has been a significant benefit for companies working in a dynamic and sometimes unpredictable location like a refinery for data-entry heavy assignments, explained Automation World. The online industry publication drew attention to the fact that many processes in manufacturing environments still depend on manual data management, which severely restricts an organization's ability to achieve efficiency. The refinery scheduled an instrumentation survey that it assumed would take roughly a year to complete using traditional methods, which amounted to a radio conversation between engineers and technicians in charge of various equipment. The results were recorded by hand using paper and pencil.
However, after implementing mobile devices, the refinery was able to cut the time down to 27 weeks, roughly half the expected timeframe. Because data could be entered in real-time using a single interface, the survey moved forward rapidly and with fewer opportunities for error.
What Manufacturers Need to Ask Themselves
Integrating mobile devices is only part of the equation. Organizations need to ensure they have a fully functional infrastructure in place. This includes a mobile data collection software solution that integrates with their ERP and other systems There are significant costs that may not appear from the onset of a mobile initiative. A recent RFgen white paper highlights the following six questions, which can help businesses make smarter mobile data collection decisions:
- What kind of development environment is included in the purchase of this mobile application or framework?
- Does this application allow me to pull data or interface easily with legacy or external systems?
- Is the development framework documented? Are there any training classes available?
- What skill sets do my application developers need in order to build new applications or change existing applications?
- Is there a library of existing transactions that can be easily modified?
- How are upgrades handled? Will I lose my customizations or will they break in future releases?
As a manufacturer grows, migrates to new platforms or upgrades their ERP software, they need to be certain their operations will continue to function. With regard to mobile solutions, there are a variety of factors that can influence the performance of in-field equipment, but software shouldn't be one of them.