Manufacturing Goes Mobile with Industrial-Strength Apps

By Al Bredenberg
08/23/2013
Credit: KROMKRATHOG via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Does the manufacturing industry have anything to gain from the adoption of mobile devices and apps? Absolutely, according to Mahesh Lunani, leader of the manufacturing, logistics, energy, and utilities practice at IT consulting firm Cognizant, based in Teaneck, N.J. “The manufacturing industry, in particular, is well-suited for mobility, as it includes a complex value chain and processes with multiple interactions and distributed activities,” he asserted in a report on mobile apps in manufacturing.

Brian Geary of mobile app developer AndPlus LLC, in Framingham, Mass., told Tech Trends Journal that mobile apps especially suit manufacturers’ need for real-time data, which is important “throughout the entire production process, from sales to product shipment.” Mobile applications, he said, are being used in manufacturing firms “to help workers in the shop to keep track of inventory and work-in-progress on a daily basis” and to “give them the ability to view and enter critical data that gets fed directly into their production systems, without leaving the shop floor.”

Mobile apps are being used by management for “staying on top of time-critical orders, targeting and resolving problems in production, and updating information, all in real time,” Geary said. The sales function is benefiting as well. “Sales teams that use mobile apps that are integrated into CRM (customer relationship management) systems have found that mobile increases their efficiency when out of the office, as well as helping them stay in touch with what is going on with each specific order they may have in process,” he said.

Plant floor inspections and quality control represent key mobile application areas for manufacturers, wrote Mary Ann Azevedo in a report for Cisco. Manufacturers gain leverage from mobile technology in the area of product traceability and recalls, as well as in field service, sales, and transportation management.

Mobile applications and devices provide more operational visibility for managers, said Azevedo, allowing them to “identify problems on the production line, drill down into problem areas, and take action right on the work floor,” even taking photos and videos on-site to capture and communicate quality issues.

Geary also highlighted mobile devices’ photo and video capabilities in his discussion with TechTrends. His company is now developing apps that take advantage of the sophisticated hardware increasingly available in mobile devices.

“Companies will be using cameras to send images of broken parts and equipment that needs maintenance, scanning bar codes and QR codes and attaching images to job tickets for quality assurance,” he said. “We could see them using NFC (near-field communication) or RFID (radio frequency identification) chips in phones to manage inventory, the speakers to alert about issues in production, or even the gyroscope to count the amount of steps a worker takes in a day in a lean manufacturing plant.”

IQMS, a developer of ERP (enterprise resource planning) software based in Paso Robles, Calif., says in a company white paper that mobile ERP applications can improve productivity by providing real-time information in usable form at every plant workstation. For example, a tablet can deliver project information, job documentation, real-time statistical process control (SPC) data analysis, and even training videos and job instructions. With a mobile device, a plant process engineer in charge of a manufacturing cell “can see a graphic representation of the performance of each work center, helping him to proactively address the stations that are lagging behind or trending out of specification before it is too late... he can view work center details like percentage complete, downtime, and many other aspects of his project.”

Lunani offered a counterpoint to IQMS’s advocacy of mobile ERP. “The biggest strategic mistake that we see companies make is to view mobility as simply a shift in platform,” he said. “For instance, they see the mobile device as a way for employees to access or run an entire business system -- enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management, finance and accounting, human resources, and so on -- from the road. In their minds, mobility simply means transferring these complex, multi-function business applications and systems to the mobile device.”

He has seen companies deploy mobile applications with “more than 50 different screens.” He warns that this is “exactly the opposite of what will make people productive, assuming you can even get them to use something so cumbersome.” For a more strategic approach, he urged, “think about how mobile devices are used in the consumer world, where people regularly download applications for very targeted and even single-function activities.”

While recognizing the benefits of mobile technologies, companies of all kinds wrestle with decisions around app development, deployment, and management. A report from research firm IDC spotlights “the rising trend of using a corporate application store to manage the proliferation of mobile applications across manufacturing organizations.”

A survey by the group found that nearly 80 percent of manufacturers are developing mobile applications, outstripping development of traditional applications. While only 20 percent of manufacturers are operating corporate app stores right now, IDC expects companies to “increase their adoption of corporate app stores in the next 12–18 months as they accelerate the delivery and quantity of mobile applications they provide to their employees and look for a means of more effectively and securely managing related processes.”

Lunani offers an intriguing vision for such company app stores. “Progressive manufacturing companies will build dozens of simple, intuitive, and even single-function apps and compile them into an enterprise mobile apps repository from which employees will download applications that perfectly synchronize with their business roles,” he said. His company has seen such “role-based mobility apps” achieve productivity improvements between 5 and 10 percent.

This concept of role-based apps points to the value of providing applications with “simple features and functionalities ... pre-populated with data and fields that make it easy for users to complete a specific task,” Lunani said.

As an example, a field service technician is unlikely to need a complex, hard-to-navigate application that does everything conceivable. It is much more practical to “identify just six or seven of these tasks that are crucial for performing on the road -- confirming an order is complete, for example, or ordering a spare part for a repair job,” he said. "Such highly purposeful, single-function applications that are aligned with their role and intuitive to use” are more likely “to ensure quick adoption.”

Selection of apps requires strategic thinking, “a deep understanding of business processes and activities within the organization, as well as the ability to select, prioritize, and ultimately build the optimal portfolio of enterprise mobile apps,” Lunani said.

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