The market for mobile technology is growing so rapidly that by last summer use of mobile applications outpaced traditional web browsing for the first time, mobile analytics firm Flurry reported in June.

While 79% of consumers use these programs for games and social networking, according to Flurry's research, more manufacturers are slowly adopting apps designed for specific business and plant operations. Customer service and sales-related apps are two of the top five mobile programs manufacturers are using, according to technology services company Infosys Ltd.

Diversified industrial manufacturer Eaton Corp. launched an app in August for the Apple iPad that provides sales representatives with specifications on its hydraulics products. With the app, Eaton's distributors and sales teams have immediate access to data on more than 200,000 products, including engineering information, 3-D parts modeling and ordering lead times.

MOBILE APPS could be a potential game-changer for the way small and midsize high-mix, low-volume operations facilitate lean manufacturing, says Shahrukh Irani, engineering professor, Ohio State University.
Photo Eaton Corp.
Cleveland-based Eaton developed the app with the help of a third-party technology provider to incorporate innovation into customer management functions, says Justin Kershaw, senior vice president and chief information officer of Eaton's industrial sector.

On the Plant Floor

On the plant floor, mobile apps are less prevalent but hold significant potential for plant-floor processes, say industry experts. Mobile apps could be a potential game-changer for the way small and midsize high-mix, low-volume operations facilitate lean manufacturing, says Shahrukh Irani, associate professor of integrated systems engineering at Ohio State University.

With fewer standard orders and processes at these facilities, establishing traditional lean concepts such as production cells and one-piece flow becomes more challenging, Irani says. That's where mobile apps can help with the creation of virtual cells, Irani says.

"When you have these dispersed work centers all around the facility, but you would like them to be programmed for certain groups of parts that keep coming down the pike from the customers, you need the material-handling folks, the maintenance folks and the operators to essentially be connected," Irani says.

Irani led the development of a software tool called PFAST that provides this type of material-flow analysis. The program can provide such information as parts location and scheduling information. Irani envisions a day when every machine in a plant has a mobile device nearby with an operator conducting status inputs and outputs.

Overall, manufacturers lag other sectors, including the financial and health care industries, in the adoption of emerging IT trends, says Ajit Mhaiskar, principal architect for Infosys' manufacturing practice. "Adoption of mobile apps in the discrete manufacturing sector is primarily limited to a few consumer-facing applications," Mhaiskar says. Integrating mobile apps to the plant infrastructure, including the ability to support multiple device platforms, manage security and build applications, is a major challenge for manufacturers, Mhaiskar says.

In the next three to five years, more manufacturers will adopt mobile apps to offer value-added services to clients, including programs that work with smart appliances, Mhaiskar says. At the plant level, some of the areas that look promising include inventory management and tracking and warehouse and logistics management.