A Tool Made for the Modern Factory – and for the People Who Support It

Those who have followed the history of manufacturing know that factory automation is not a new notion, and on the horizon is Industry 4.0, automation + Big Data analysis. The advancement of long-established automation capabilities is propelling a greater global realization of “what could be” in the coming era as manufacturers gain the ability to more effectively connect, analyze, and apply all the data available within their facilities. And while Industry 4.0 is still very much in its infancy in Europe – and a ways off for most factories in other regions – there’s a significant transformation already occurring as manufacturers seek to introduce new technology-driven manufacturing techniques today and create a foundation for the future. Just consider the sophistication of the machinery found in modern factories, especially those producing high-value and highly configurable goods.

If you were to take a factory tour today, you’d see that they usually encompass similar characteristics: large square footage, large machines performing repetitive tasks, material-handling carts winding their way throughout the plant floor, incoming and outgoing docks, and forklifts. There are many LCD screens, computers and miles and miles of network cables that enable these connected factories to monitor, configure and control the fabrication of finished products, improving efficiency and quality control. Each plant, regardless of their specialty, shares a dependence on computer-based systems and expensive programmable machines. The value that can be derived by pushing these newfound technological limits is proven, and the potential is even greater.

Essentially, these highly automated factories create two kinds of work environments. For many people– most commonly the line workers – automation isolates their focus to the task at hand by removing distractions. However, to keep the factory operating, they still need to access and use the data being generated by these automated systems. Case in point: Material handlers will always need more “manual” access to a number of information databases (i.e. inventory, workstation assignments, etc.) to effectively select the right parts noted in the automated request and transport them to the right place at the right time. Such tasks are commonly supported by mobile or mounted devices, barcode scanners and RFID readers. And we’re seeing manufacturers realize increasing benefits from rugged tablets that have built-in barcode scanners and RFID readers, can be mounted onto a forklift or cart, and provide complete information mobility to support the user’s walking-and-working tasks.

But there are more complex tasks, such as monitoring and maintenance that also require worker visibility into a variety of data sets at any given moment. Sophisticated machines have sophisticated needs and usually a network connection, plus operating manuals on how to examine and maintain the machines. The configuration of this equipment, often done during the new product introduction phase, also necessitates access to this data and use of the factory’s operations software. Yet there is still a great deal of complexity involved in workers’ ability to sufficiently access the data aggregated by these highly networked environments. There’s also a lingering disparity in the systems structures implemented across the various departments, which can challenge manufacturers’ ability to scale operations and optimize business processes. That’s what VDC Research learned in speaking with manufacturers; more than 85% now believe mobile solutions are more important than they were a year ago.

As VDC Research reiterated in a recent report about Mobile’s Place in theConnected Factory: “… data is poised to change the industry.” Thus, factory workers have to become  information workers who can sustain total connectivity to the complex – and already automated – factories I just discussed no matter where they work inside or outside those four walls. And like VDC noted, the only way this can be achieved – the only way to digitalize paper processes, improve communications, and provide complete visibility into the flow of operations – is via mobile technology. For instance, mobile devices that are connected to the factory’s backbone could allow for manuals to be quickly retrieved, data read from the machines to be stored and analyzed, and tickets to be opened and closed.

Of course, manufacturing mobility in and of itself is still somewhat in the fledgling stages when compared to many field service sectors such as utilities or public safety. Most will agree with VDC’s observation that the broader use cases for mobile technologies within an Industry 4.0 environment have yet to be formalized. But that doesn’t mean that mobile computers have yet to solidify their place in certain manufacturing-related processes. In fact, Xplore rugged tablets have been a cornerstone solution for several Fortune 500 and Global 1000 manufacturers over the last 15 years, primarily because mobile PCs are the only way to effectively extend data systems to “walking and working” employees in real-time without compromising cost or productivity efficiencies. Plus, rugged tablets’ longevity in manufacturing – even as other technology comes and goes – just underpins their unmatched flexibility, adaptability and overall reliability. In fact, manufacturers who attempted to prove the business case for mobile PCs with other smaller form factors, or non-rugged devices, have been unable to justify the costs of full mobilization due to the added complications these other devices create.

Rugged tablets are truly the only mobile computing tool made for the modern factory – and the people that support it. Here are a few more reasons why:

  • Factories do not run completely on autopilot. The reality is that the IT department manages a heavy workload in their efforts to keep the factory running smoothly. They are responsible for performing maintenance, monitoring all equipment and systems, and developing changes for new products and new process improvements. Therefore, the choice of mobile device integrated into the mix has a huge impact on IT’s capabilities to sustain system uptime. Manufacturers can certainly choose a tablet that may have a lower sticker price or seems easy to “power on and go” (i.e. iPad or even a rugged handheld), but it will most likely be very difficult for workers to effectively use this as their only PC across every workflow without issue. Alternatively, IT can choose a rugged tablet that integrates easily into their environment. Just follow some of the tips offered in this webinar to ensure you’re considering all of the right factors, such as software…
  • Barriers to Improving Your Manufacturing Processes

    Software performance is critical to the performance of the entire manufacturing operation. Modern connected factories have sophisticated business systems installed, and much of the business information systems are integrated together. Manufacturers should only consider tablets that run the operating systems (Windows® or Android™) that support the applications optimized to their unique process environment. Besides, VDC’s survey isn’t the only one that shows the value of compatibility with current systems. Xplore and Intel® just commissioned a survey that found compatibility with existing systems and accessories was the #1 requirement of mobile devices among companies across a large set of industries, including manufacturing.

  • Strained IT budgets are common in the manufacturing segment . Just look at these “barriers to improvement” noted by the connected factory leaders in VDC’s report. Given that IT is typically underfunded, the smart move is to pick the tablet which integrates the best and the easiest within your current infrastructure system to minimize secondary cost and resource requirements. Fortunately, there are many viable rugged tablet choices that minimize secondary cost and resource requirements of the total mobility solution and extend the ROI on all mobile hardware, software, and ancillary systems dictated by the device by 3-7 years (vs. 1-2 years typical with non-rugged tablets)

  • Barriers to Deploying Mobile Solutions

    In reality, cost + performance metrics – both tangible and intangible – are central to nearly every one of the perceived barriers to mobile device deployment. These are all real issues that, quite frankly, are going to be exacerbated or eased depending on the type of mobile device chosen as I discussed in a recent webinar about the Total Cost of Ownership of various mobile PC form factors. But, if you want to quickly eliminate some of the issues, deploy a rugged commercial-grade tablet that comes standard with best-in-class security, uses factory standard interfaces, and is proven to survive longer (as noted above). Then the ROI becomes predictable as many of the complexities are addressed. For example, when you select a tablet which runs your current software, the cost of deployment goes down – as does the resistance to change – since the same data interface on desktop systems can be seen on these mobile devices. Easy viewing of server data and use of existing software, in many cases, mitigates project complexity and the perceived challenges when there’s a lack of 3 rd party apps. Professional-grade rugged tablets are also highly compatible with the best-in-class MDM or EMM solutions, which streamline device management functions and enhance troubleshooting capabilities. They also come standard with the government-mandated security features needed to secure apps and privacy, such as fingerprint scanners, TPM 2.0, encryption, and multi-authentication factors. Additionally, rugged tablets have the best radio systems of any mobile computing form factor because they are often used in challenging wireless environments. 

  • Rugged Tablets Built to Last

    Rugged tablets are the only mobile platforms that will survive the day, which drastically reduces technology and deployment costs. Unlike most other form factors, rugged tablets are built to last – even the harsh bangs that any computer must endure when mounted on a material handling cart, the drops onto concrete floors or steel plating that will occur at some point, or the inadvertent tool that is accidently dropped on the mobile device itself. Plus, robot interactions, solvents, extreme temperatures and vibrations can all harm non-rugged devices.

  • Some manufacturing actions also produce fine dusts or mists which may be explosive. Only rugged tablets with C1D2/C1Z2 or ATEX Hazardous Location certification can be used in these places.
  • Plus, there’s a trend to move beyond fixed terminal PCs on forklifts. Right now, if a fixed PC fails or is scheduled for maintenance, the entire forklift is taken out of service until the PC issue is resolved – thus the value proposition of a removable mobile device that could be used to replace a broken one quickly. And when a forklift is out of service, so is the fixed PC and its operator. A “grab and go” mobile computer, though, could be moved from the broken forklift to another to ensure continuity of operations. But handheld screens are too small for operators to read when in transit and laptops take up too much real estate, making tablets the perfect sized solution. 
  • However, forklifts are perhaps one of the most extreme stresses for computers. Hard wheels and no suspension equals major jolts when forklifts hit floor seams, which often have a steel edge. Forklifts also go from climate-controlled environments, to loading docks that will be hot and humid, frigid or exposed to rain. Only a truly rugged tablet built to certain military-grade ( MIL-STD-810G) and Ingress Protection (IP) standards – not “just” rugged or case-protected – will survive in this environment.

Remember: A tablet that does not fail will not need frequent replacement, or the subsequent (and costly) device procurement, re-imaging, credentialing and deployment process that must occur every time there is a failure. Sure, we may be accustomed to a “new every two” type rip-and-replace model in our personal lives, but you know how painful it can be when you have to get a new device – and how disruptive it can be when your device fails far sooner than you expected. Imagine the consequences that very precise manufacturing processes would suffer if they failed to deploy reliable devices the first time. As Xplore has counseled in many articles, whitepapers and on-site customer visits, let your requirements drive the selection of a tablet, don’t try to make the wrong tablet “kind of fit”.

Whitepaper:  Find Out the Top 3 Reasons Why Mobile-Centric Companies Prefer Rugged Tablets Over Any Other Form Factor

3 Reasons to choose rugged tablets

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