When real-time information became readily available to manufacturers, the first application began outside the four walls of the factory. Providing the field sales force the ability to complete transactions at their point of location greatly improved productivity. Simultaneously the ROI on the investments in hardware and software was very quick.
Mobility moved inside the plant using the same processes and is taking many forms including asset tracking, maintenance and safety, not to mention providing improved visibility into plant or company performance through applications such as executive dashboards.
"Mobile communication technologies are a critical enabler of intelligent and rapid decision making vital to serving customer needs while optimizing assets to create maximum shareholder value," explains Mark George, senior executive, operations consulting for the Accenture Process & Innovation Performance service line. "They support real-time monitoring of an ever increasing number of key performance indicators, and they are enabling prudent, timely decision making that is so critical in today's complex manufacturing environment."
Safety applications are increasingly popular avenues of utilizing this advanced technology, says June Ruby, director, Manufacturing Solutions Group, Motorola Mobility Solutions Business. "I see a lot of opportunity in the chemical, food and beverage, and pharmaceutical sectors," she says. "A mobile operator is able to maintain visibility using a single mobile rugged device that allows for both real-time data collection and analysis. For example in the chemical industry, it allows operators to record and report on tanks levels while on location and away from the control room."
According to the "Motorola Enterprise Mobility Manufacturing Barometer" study, while 25% of manufacturers are investing in inventory/materials management and sales force applications, the trend is toward more use of mobile devices and applications on the shop floor.
Inventory management, materials management, WIP tracking, quality/control assurance and even human machine interface (HMI)/operator interface applications are receiving budget allocations. Since this technology improves processes and thus efficiency in operations, it has become a key factor in remaining competitive in the current climate.
"More than 50% of those surveyed cited a competitive advantage through the use of mobile and wireless technologies to empower their shop-floor and field-mobility workforce to take advantage of opportunities in the marketplace," the Motorola study concludes.
However, investments are not made easily in these current economic times. "Companies let us know that they need proven technology with short ROIs," says Dan Gillison, director of Industry Solutions for Sprint.
Unlike previous adoption of advanced technology which has required both training and paradigm shifts in adaptation, this technology is already in use in the personal lives of both operators and management. Instead of an alert of an incoming e-mail, senior management is now being alerted to defects on the shop floor. Through scorecards and dashboards now available on handheld machines, looking into the production floor on a real-time basis is possible.
Lean on the Go
The availability of essential data in a more timely manner is a boon to companies looking to push further on their lean journeys. A recent ARC Advisory Group report suggests that as companies "examine their value stream maps for process steps that can be improved, those steps that were identified as non-value-added but required can often be streamlined with mobility technologies."
"We are now finding that while mobility was mostly the directive of the IT executives, increasingly it's the lean directors that are expressing interest in using the technology to further their goals," says Gillison.
Ruby shares this assessment. "Mobility is the core lean enabler allowing manufacturers to extend mobile voice and data right to the point of activity." And this level of communication goes to the heart of lean's objective in eliminating waste. Waste reduction in the form of downtime is one of the immediate returns on investment that companies are seeing from connecting the plant floor to the board room. Ruby points to the use of a mobile e-kanban solution in which manufacturers place a wireless call button at every station so workers can call for inventory through a handheld device while remaining focused on the job at hand.
"It's also clear that manufacturers will need to use mobility and an execution excellence approach consisting of organizational and process simplicity, speed and discipline as they modernize their supply chains in an effort to achieve competitive advantage. As were demonstrating in our Accenture Innovation Center for Manufacturing in the Chicago area, manufacturers are able to make quicker decisions when they use mobile solutions to support their lean and performance management operations.
Six Sigma benefits from this technology as well. During the measure phase of Six Sigma projects, the ability to gain access to processes that prior to the use of sensors could not be measured, such as moving parts of equipment, can increase data quality, ARC reports.
The connection of real-time data, handled now by the mobile operator, moves the decision-making process closer to those who best understand the process and places them in a better position to suggest process improvements. "Over time the series of small improvements accumulate and compound into important gains in business performance," according to ARC.
The Mobile Future
Small improvements are just a prelude to the much larger field of cooperation that Dave Peddemors, vice president of North America Sales at Psion Teklogix, is seeing. His company is developing "open innovation" to allow manufacturers and their partners to take advantage of the availability of real-time data and match it with real-time feedback. The community is called Ingenuity Working. "It creates a dynamic work environment that allows customers and manufacturers to share data to solve problems. We believe it's the future of how business will be done."
Another future application is wireless video capabilities that further enable collaboration. In the case of a machine that has malfunctioned, real-time video allows for a remote expert to see the actual problem and give council, all over a wireless device. "This capability represents a huge savings. In the past a machine would be idled until repair personnel were able to physically arrive to solve the problem and that person could be located at another manufacturing facility," Gillison explains. While some companies are currently using this technology, Gillison predicts it will be a large growth area.
Collaboration is extending still further within the machine-to-machine application of connectivity. In addition to the current benefit of being able to remotely monitor machinery and therefore protect key assets, machines are now "talking" to each other. Devices, either installed or embedded, can communicate with each other and share data without human intervention.
"The area of machine-to machine communications is one of the most exciting evolution of wireless connectivity," says Glubochansky. "It will move into the product development stage in that products will be embedded with this capability. We see some examples in safety systems that allow our cars, buildings and homes to talk to a control center. This application will expand. Intelligent end points will create new products and new opportunities."