Historically, automated manufacturing environments haven’t been archetypical mobility environments. That’s changing over time as more sophisticated machines are used, a trend that will accelerate with the impending arrival of Industry 4.0. The influx of data sets via numerous systems in the modern “connected factory” is stimulating the need for technologies that can facilitate seamless knowledge transfers between the back office and the shop floor. At the same time, highly skilled factory workers are becoming increasingly reliant on the real-time data delivered via this sophisticated equipment – versus historical trends reported on paper – to more expeditiously and accurately accomplish the hands-on tasks associated with manufacturing’s 3Ms: monitoring, maintenance and materials.
In effect, we’re seeing a rise in “information workers” who – despite the value still placed on their mechanical abilities – are valued even more for their capacity to make better-informed decisions and take more meaningful actions to improve the quality and efficiency of increasingly specialized manufacturing operations.
The best example of this change to information workers is in airframe manufacturing, an industry that Xplore has supported for years. During the fabrication of airplanes, cables, hydraulic lines, control cables and may other things are fitted through channels throughout the walls and wings, as well as under (what will be) the floor or above (what will be) the ceiling of the finished plane. As you can imagine, this has to be done precisely right – in the right order in the right way, following very specific directions. However, before mobile devices were used, the fitters would have to crawl out of the airframe, take a ladder to the floor, walk to a workstation with paper or a desktop PC, review the next few steps, and then climb back into the jet to continue the assembly. Now, with rugged tablets in hand, the worker can stay in the aircraft and proceed through each step without disruption or delay. At the same time, the tablet facilitates the immediate documentation of everything the worker has done to assist with the subsequent inspection that’s required of every completed task. That’s why factories that made the shift to rugged tablets saw a 3X increase in productivity almost immediately.
Even those responsible for producing telecom back-haul equipment, jet engines, pharmaceuticals, aeronautics and avionics, medical equipment and devices, and automobiles, for example, require workers to have relevant information at their fingertips to facilitate more routine “3M” tasks. Those tasked with keeping the equipment operating; monitoring process, inventory and systems status; or performing re-configurations; all benefit from complete accurate data at the ready. Even the “traveler” document that describes the specific options of each automobile, piece of medical equipment and similar customizable items needs to be produced in close proximity to the line workers reliant on such data to make assembly decisions. Subsequently, we’re seeing manufacturers recognize that mobile devices – and specifically the tablet form factor – must become a more predominant component in factories’ technology mix.
In addition, manufacturers who want to introduce and sustain more high-value and/or highly-customized production models have their own motivations for “mobilizing” quickly and with the right data access tools. “On-demand” manufacturing can be lucrative, but the logistics are equally complex. Factory leaders are increasingly seeking technologies that afford greater workflow flexibility and grant “information workers” the real-time access they mandate to critical workflow-related data. For examples, workers need computers that offer uninterrupted connectivity to the systems required to effectively manage materials inventory, deliver “just in time” parts to the plant floor, and meet committed order fulfillment deadlines without compromising efficiency or quality. That’s where the tablet PC once again come into play. But not just any tablet – or rugged tablet – will do.
That’s why rugged tablets are the only mobile computing tool made for the modern factory and the people who support it, as I’ll discuss more next week. However, given the industry’s renewed emphasis on business process improvement and the effort to develop a full force of “information workers”, it’s important that we closely examine how this human factor should influence manufacturers’ mobile device decisions. Particularly since the more expansive use cases for tablets have yet to be recognized in most modern manufacturing environments.
Let’s start with the simple case of a material handler. Today’s shorter production deadlines, combined with the increased customization of goods, is dictating faster response times by all workers in all departments. That means this person must be able to receive and react to on-demand parts requests. Only a rugged tablet that can reliably travel with them in hand or on a forklift will be able to a) get the request to them in real time and b) provide the up-to-the-minute info they require to pick and deliver the right part to the right work station at the right time.
Those who are charged with monitoring equipment, performing maintenance, or re-configuring a machine also need accurate data in their hands at all times. This includes the read-outs that confirm each machine’s performance levels and can identify variances that may indicate that preventative work is due, as well as the complex data sets produced on-the-spot during configuration procedures. It’s highly inefficient and wasteful to require these workers to retreat to office desktops or other PC setups off the factory floor every time they need workflow or equipment-related information to complete the task at hand. Thus, the move towards mobile computers. But only rugged tablets have the capability to show the full data set; run the software which generates the data and drives their actions; connect reliably in a Wi-Fi-noisy environment; and support any IoT or tracking interface needed via Bluetooth, RFID, or barcode scanning – without failing due to surrounding physical or environmental hazards in the process.
Of course, rugged tablets’ advanced (and built-in) communication and data capture technology is also key to the successful transition of finished goods from the plant to the warehouse for storage or to the transportation team for packing and loading onto the truck. Consider Chemical plant manufacturers, and their use of augmented reality to “see” what is happening. Mobile workstations are used by engineers to inspect various equipment (primarily pumps, valves, etc.) in the plant; identifying the user, the equipment, and then the parts via RFID and barcode. Then the engineer uses the tablet to retrieve manuals and maintenance/repair instructions for pumps running SAP augmented reality software, which might simultaneously show what a pipe is carrying or what a pump is pumping, for example. In fact, once the move from stationary PCs or paper to the mobile device happens, it is pretty easy to add the capability for multiple workers to capture and share critical data needed to solve issues with plant equipment right there on the plant floor. This collaboration is something that Intel, among others, believes is a quick “next-capability” that factories can and should add.
Let’s not forget about IT, either. They are probably the most intensely working people in your whole operation (which is why I suggest that every factory offer tours of their on-site IT department for those who want to see how things really work). But that means that you must consider how your tablet selection will impact their ability to succeed in deploying, monitoring, managing, and securing your facilities’ entire technology infrastructure. For example, built-for-manufacturing tablets have the built-in security needed to ensure mission critical data is secure and these mobile devices won’t be vectors for those with malicious intent. This will enable your IT team to reallocate their focus to the improvement of business process systems and dedicate resources to the refinement of existing technologies to realize new efficiencies. Plus, rugged tablets are exclusively able to adapt to evolving business requirements and subsequent software upgrades. You don’t have to take away workers’ real-time information access every time IT needs to implement a new app or conduct a device update.
Manufacturers are facing an unprecedented opportunity to create leaner operating environments despite current complexities. The only way to truly support mobile information workers without hindering their productivity potential in any way is to equip them with rugged tablets. Tablets are the only fully functioning mobile computer form factor designed for walking-and-working. And only tablets have the performance capacity and screen size to see applications hosted by the factory’s servers in any working conditions, whether on foot, forklift, or when climbing into the fuselage of an aircraft being assembled.
Besides, mobile information workers aren’t just valuable because of the data they receive and act upon, but also the data they produce and share with others across the entire supply chain – including suppliers and customers tracking order progress, processing AP actions, and framing their logistics decisions around the manufacturer’s status. So, though the business case for mobile computers may be obvious in the warehouse or on a forklift, we have to more aggressively explore the business process improvements and economic opportunities that rugged tablet technologies can facilitate as manufacturers move towards a more efficient, automated, and data-centric future.