Imagine the power of connecting all facets of the manufacturing enterprise -- from warehouses and production to field and, ultimately, delivery to the customer. Imagine gaining the ability to monitor, share, analyze, respond and act upon information and knowledge in real time. This scenario describes just one aspect of how innovative mobile technology is transforming manufacturing.
"It's clear that mobile technology adoption is increasing in both the business and personal sectors. Now more than ever, manufacturers have an opportunity to take advantage of these technologies to advance almost every aspect of their businesses," says Joe Barkai, practice director for IDC Manufacturing Insight's Product Lifecycle Strategies research service.
The rise of mobile technology has forever changed the rules of business and customer engagement across virtually every manufacturing segment, accelerating the speed of business operations while also fueling the demand for instant, appropriate communications based on accurate information. Companies around the globe are rethinking their business processes to improve responsiveness and productivity.
In manufacturing, the need to innovate amidst the backdrop of this larger technological revolution is considered by top industry leaders to be an imperative. This premise differs from thinking in years past, when innovation was viewed as a "luxury" that required the resources of time, people and budget. Today, the reality is that innovation is necessary for an organization's survival.
To that end, recent IDC Manufacturing Insights research shows that 75% of manufacturers currently use or are planning to implement mobile technologies to improve virtually every aspect of their business -- from inventory and distribution management to supply chain automation, employee training, customer interaction and access to enterprise applications. But mobile technology isn't merely another new tool to advance automation. It's a game-changer in differentiation among the competition.
As manufacturers grapple with simultaneous demands and challenges, the same technologies that have disrupted "business as usual" in other industries are now transforming the business of manufacturing. A host of objectives are already being achieved by forward-thinking companies. The top goal? Competitive advantage.
Unprecedented Benefits to Manufacturing
"Standardizing production processes and plant-floor data collection and retrieval are the next evolution for mobility with manufacturers," says June Ruby, manufacturing principal at Motorola Solutions' Industry Solutions Group. "Connecting customer demand from field sales teams in real time to inventory ordering systems and production scheduling will give manufacturers more forecasting power than ever before. And with product quality top of mind, manufacturers are looking for new ways to monitor not only production processes to ensure quality specifications, but also to hold material suppliers accountable."
The ability to integrate voice, video, and data provides a pathway for a more unified approach to communications with customers and throughout the business enterprise -- across functions, expertise levels and languages. When these technologies are brought together in the manufacturing environment, their impact is powerful and immediate, according to industry experts like Barkai and Ruby.
Mobile technology can help manufacturers manage simultaneous demands and address new challenges, according to new insights from IDC Manufacturing research and analysis. Mobile technology and the rapidly increasing sophistication of its enabling communications infrastructure and array of ubiquitous devices "create nonstop, seamless, reliable, safe, and cost-effective real-time connectivity for all stakeholders in and around manufacturing," says Barkai.
Improving Decision Making
Wireless-enabled data collection and reporting technologies can be embedded throughout the manufacturing enterprise, allowing everyone within the organization to access, monitor and evaluate real-time data upon which to make sound business decisions. This capability benefits the operation in many ways -- from faster problem identification and resolution to mitigating risk or averting loss in a crisis.
The ability to monitor and control multiple lines or facilities and share data and best practices across the enterprise offers operational, as well as competitive advantages. The process of making knowledgeable, fact-based decisions is significantly improved when the data upon which decisions are based come from the manufacturer's own operations rather than industry profiles or the experiences of others. IDC reports 50% of employees in the consumer products industry use mobile technology to perform inventory and distribution management functions to strategically inform decision making and increase competitive advantage.
Connecting With Customers
To succeed in a highly competitive marketplace, manufacturers need to form strong relationships with customers and work to build loyalty. But to accomplish that goal, companies need a deep understanding of their customers as individuals and the ability to build products that meet expectations -- both from a perspective of quality and value.
Today's salesforce automation and customer relationship management applications are powered by mobile technology, providing a wealth of valuable, real-time data where and when it's needed most -- at the point of customer engagement with the ultimate goal of making the sale. In fact, according to IDC, 45% of employees in automotive, consumer products, chemicals, and other discrete manufacturing industries use mobile technology to access salesforce automation applications.
Especially now, companies need to more accurately forecast and respond to market demands. Mobile solutions can empower sales teams to gather and analyze data from retail point of sale for competitive intelligence, as well as to foster more accurate and timely demand forecasts. For instance, many consumer packaged goods manufacturers work with retailers to capture customer data to increase insights, drive promotions, and ensure product availability.
Managing People More Effectively and Assets More Efficiently
Workforce reductions and an aging demographic are challenging the availability and access to experienced, knowledge-based workers. This challenge can be met and countered by leveraging mobility to standardize and document processes, provide access to "expert" information
and, when required, connect via integrated voice or video technology on a single mobile computing device.
"The rise of millennial or Gen Y workers in manufacturing and other industries is a given," says Ruby. "What's new is the challenge to attract and leverage these young, tech-savvy individuals. Multitaskers by nature, Gen Y workers fully capitalize on all of the connections' made possible today via phone, email, instant messaging and texting. They expect instant information and are comfortable with the multifaceted, multitasking nature of accessing it. Enterprise technology tools can bridge the gap between personal and professional needs, and in addition, help manufacturers take advantage of the Gen Y employee's natural affinity for technology-enabled connections' and networking."
Organizations have already begun to reap the benefits of this approach. Field-service workforce automation has enabled more than 70% of technicians in the chemical manufacturing industry to expedite difficult or more advanced service activities, according to Barkai. In addition, the same mobility tools used by field teams to manage work orders and parts can also streamline and document employee training, quickly ramping employee competency and ultimately customer satisfaction.
Assets are directly connected to the bottom line. If a piece of equipment fails causing production shutdown, costs can quickly escalate to millions of dollars per hour. But when an enterprise establishes real-time visibility to its assets, companies can respond faster to critical issues and potentially avoid or lessen the impact.
"Whether the problem is machine failure, a natural disaster that shuts down a plant, or a sudden shift in consumer demand," says Barkai, "executives have the information necessary to quickly locate and reallocate resources and support staff as needed."
As mobile operators perform daily rounds, they can leverage a mobile computer and wireless connectivity to monitor and assess performance of machinery, perform line-side quality tests, and even complete basic maintenance tasks such as machine calibration. Proper monitoring, maintenance, and management of systems and equipment are at the core of a successful operation.
"Mobile technologies can also provide a complete and real-time view of the organization's supply and distribution network that allows, for instance, track-and-trace of shipments and commodities," according to Ruby. "Manufacturers can easily locate, track, and better manage materials as they flow through operations -- from incoming goods to inventory storage to work-in-process, finished goods, and even materials in transit to ensure cost efficiency, production continuity, and traceability."
Ensuring Quality and Regulatory Compliance
All manufacturers must contend with industrywide regulations such as the Clean Air Act, consumer safety standards, and other governing agency or internal requirements. The need to establish a cost-effective means of ensuring quality standards while collecting the multitude of data required to support regulatory reporting requirements is crucial. Mobile solutions allow accurate data collection at multiple and flexible end points. They can be wirelessly integrated into enterprise business systems and available on demand for more accurate and timely reporting.
Beyond data collection and reporting, mobility tools can also aid management in identifying patterns that may help prevent failures or inconsistencies in quality. "The process improvement benefits of having this real-time connectivity are unprecedented," Barkai asserts.
The Bottom Line
Mobility and connectivity are not end goals. Organizations must consider how they can organize their businesses in ways that leverage the advantages of mobile technology and envision how the use of mobility solutions can advance overall goals. When looking to invest in mobile solutions, manufacturers should focus on the business value of the investment. Each solution or technology should contribute to fundamental organizational goals and provide both relevant content and context for workers.
"Don't merely look at mobile technologies and devices to streamline current processes. Instead, take the opportunity to build a mobility strategy that can transform operations, driving excellence throughout the organization, creating more loyal customers, and seizing competitive advantage," says Ruby.
Pamela Oldham is a freelance journalist based in Round Rock, Texas. For more information on mobility in manufacturing, click here.