By the spring of 2012, all plant operators at ethanol producer Marquis Energy LLC will receive an iPad to help them track critical process data. The goal, says company President Jason Marquis, is to equip workers with a mobile device that reduces downtime by empowering employees to monitor their own processes.

"Operators will be able to see things real time, fix things real time and have more of a history base with the items they're dealing with," Marquis says. "Right now, operators lack ownership over a particular area of a plant, whereas if you're in charge of all the aspects of your area -- including preventive maintenance and regular maintenance and operation -- I think it's more likely you can see things quicker."

More mobile technologies typically associated with consumer applications are making their way to the plant floor as wireless capabilities advance and younger workers begin replacing an aging workforce, says Joe Barkai, research vice president for IDC Manufacturing Insights.

Many Generation Y workers entering the manufacturing workforce are already using mobile technologies, such as smartphones and tablets, so in many cases they expect these devices to be available in the workplace, Barkai says. Manufacturers have an opportunity to capitalize on this demographic's high-tech communications skills by incorporating mobile devices into their operations.

Apple iPad
Operators will be able to see things real time, fix things real time and have more of a history base with the items they're dealing with. -- Jason Marquis, president, Marquis Energy LLC

But Barkai cautions that manufacturers shouldn't be eager to use Apple iPads and other consumer-oriented technologies simply because they can. "Because we get so excited over the technology and these shiny objects," Barkai says, "we sometimes don't spend enough time thinking about what is the true value, and does it make sense to take existing workflows and support them through the iPad."

iPads, for instance, are not always ideal for plant environments because they're not rugged enough, and they can be difficult to read in well-lit areas, Barkai says. More appropriate applications could include access for supervisors who, equipped with a mobile device, can now roam throughout the plant and have access to quality, maintenance and inventory data.

The ability to incorporate mobile devices on the plant floor will become much simpler in the years ahead when communication protocols such as WiMAX and LTE make their way to manufacturing environments, Barkai says. "That means every asset, product and person becomes a roaming IP address, so communication will become obvious," Barkai says. "We will all be in a constant IP cloud, and communication will no longer be a question."

Globally, the use of tablets and mobile devices in manufacturing is still in its infancy, says Karthik Sundaram, a senior research analyst with Frost & Sullivan's European practice.

"There is currently a very low scale of adoption globally, but we see a high potential for market participants operating in the coming years," Sundaram says.

The biggest challenge to wider-scale adoption is security, Sundaram says. Security issues could be addressed through the development of mobile operating systems that are exclusively designed for industries and can guarantee security from cyber threats. "This will be essential for the growth of this market in future factories," Sundaram says.