Manufacturing's Mobile Future

Delivering applications to mobile devices is a top priority for one manufacturing software provider.

Online software provider Plex Systems Inc. is looking for a few good ideas -- regarding how software applications on mobile devices can help manufacturers run their operations.

At the company's 2010 user conference earlier this month in Dearborn, Mich., Plex Director of Development Jason Prater urged customers to provide feedback on Plex's mobile development platform, which can deliver some Plex applications, via Web pages, to any of the three major mobile devices (the BlackBerry, Droid or iPhone).

"Use it, see what you can think of, push us in new directions, come up with new ideas and let's see what we can do," Prater said. "We'll take care of the technical details. We just need more ideas on how we can provide better functionality."

Auburn, Hills, Mich.-based Plex, which provides software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) for manufacturers, sees mobility as "our No. 1 internal priority," Prater told IndustryWeek.

"I'm very passionate about it," Prater said. "And we keep seeing these instances of where it would be great if [users] could get to the system from a mobile device."

For example, mobile devices could enable users to move inventory via GPS coordinates. At the executive level, Prater sees performance and production metrics being delivered "on the fly" via mobile devices. At the operational level, alerts on production problems might be useful for operations personnel, as "those are people who are not at their desks."

The shop floor, Prater adds, is where "we're having a lot of crazy ideas," such as ways to uses mobile devices' built-in cameras.

"One of the ideas is can a quality guy take a picture of a part when he sees a bad part, and we send that out, create [problem resolution reports] and automatically notify the suppliers, all from that," Prater explains. "Because it's not going to happen at his desk -- it's going to happen out on the floor."

Pointing to the "multimedia aspects of the phone," Prater says "that's where we're trying to really shoot for the stars." For example, he wonders if an operator could use the GPS coordinates of a machine to download a training video on that particular unit.

Browser Compatibility, Network Speed Are the Challenges

While Prater asserts that the technology is at "an infantile stage of development," he is hopeful that some of these ideas will become a reality later this year.

"I think it's all definitely possible, and I think it's very possible in the short term for us because we're SaaS -- it's a lot easier for us to do it."

It might be easier for a SaaS provider such as Plex, but it's not easy. Among the technical challenges are creating software applications compatible with three different phone browsers and building application screens for devices that are roughly 2½ by 3 inches in size.

However, the biggest challenge, Prater says, is speed.

"All of the [mobile devices] are very sensitive to network speed," Prater says. "We're a little bit farther north up in Auburn Hills, and some of the coverage is not as great as it as when you get to more metropolitan areas. We've noticed as you get to Chicago the phones are much faster. And so that makes it a challenge, because if it's slow, no one is going to use it."

Prater admits that the manufacturing community isn't exactly clamoring for mobility yet. When Plex informed a small group of users that some applications were available via mobile devices, he says the company received virtually no feedback. Still, he asserts that "manufacturers are typically laggards when it comes to adopting that cutting-edge [technology]," and wonders if perhaps manufacturers just need a little push.

"I'm hoping some of the more innovative customers will kind of jump on board," Prater says. "Or maybe I'll have to build some more [applications] to get the ball rolling."

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