Smart Manufacturing (and Mobility) May Be Closer Than You Think

You may not know much about York, PA, unless you’re a Harley-Davidson fan. This small city in the South Central region of the state is home to a Harley-Davidson Vehicle Operations facility. It is here where the popular Touring, Softail®, CVO™ and Trike motorcycle models are assembled and parts like frames, fuel tanks, and fenders are manufactured. York is also like a second home to me – but what I’m starting to realize is that my connection to the city extends far beyond my personal life.

I joined Xplore in November 2014, and I knew from day one that Xplore was helping companies of all sizes and in all industries modernize their operations using rugged mobile technologies. I also knew when I was getting my degree at York College that the city of York held a lot of historical significance. What I didn’t realize is that York would have such an influential role in the work that I’m doing now at Xplore to drive a new wave of manufacturing capabilities in the United States (U.S.) and around the world…

You see, York is considered by many to be the first capital of the United States. The Articles of Confederation were adopted by the Continental Congress there, and it was in York that the phrase “The United States of America” was first officially spoken. But the city’s impact on our nation’s livelihood didn’t end in 1777.

There’s another revolution now happening in York that will surely be written into the history books one day: the early emergence of Industry 4.0 in the U.S. Some call this European-born era a “ confluence of trends and technologies.” Others consider Industry 4.0 a collective term that refers to the embrace of “a number of contemporary automation, data exchange and manufacturing technologies.” No matter how you want to describe it, the fact is that Industry 4.0 is giving movers and shakers like Harley-Davidson the ability to customize, monitor and build complicated, high quality products like never before. And this noteworthy manufacturing movement is starting to hit close to home.

Until recently, the beloved motorcycle brand’s York factory was “a vintage assembly line plant with minimal flexibility in a make-to-stock environment.” It closed for about two years while “Harley-Davidson wiped the slate clean and developed a new manufacturing system,” but reopened in 2011 as “a model of efficiency” and a “tangible manifestation” of the company’s commitment to a more sustainable and profitable manufacturing model. Harley Davidson was eager to stay at the forefront of this “fourth major upheaval in modern manufacturing” and evolve its production model from “making batches to making ‘eaches’.” In fact, Harley-Davidson connected the entirety of its new factory environment via wireless networks. It also embraced a combination of digital technologies to create a real-time performance management system visible by supervisors and shop floor workers via large screens throughout the plant, desktop PCs, and mobile devices.

Rugged Tablet PCs can follow manufacturing workers literally everywhere - inside and outside

This change to server-based Industry 4.0 processes coincides with the introduction of mobile devices into factories. Just as the work has moved from old-style repetitive work to modern semi-automated customization tasks, these workers need some “information-worker” skills. To gain access to the information they need to monitor, maintain, and report on the functioning of the sophisticated machinery, they need tablet PCs that give them access to all of the server-based software that is running the manufacturing floor.

A certain level of insight into system efficiency, equipment performance, and current market demand is needed to plan production schedules and maintain the proper production volume. Quality control reviews, predictive analysis, and business process management (BPM) improvements are also essential. That’s why investment in automation along with mobility solutions must be the first step in creating modern, paperless manufacturing plants that will thrive amid new competition.

A statement that Harley-Davidson CEO Matthew Levatich made at the Smart Manufacturing Summit last week validates my point:

“Our flexible manufacturing strategy is designed to get the right motorcycle to the right customer at the right time."

In order to execute that strategy effectively, the factory’s communications systems must be fine-tuned to get the right production-related data to the right person in the manufacturing process at the right time. But the only way to effectively capture, share, and analyze such specialized data in real time is through the use of manufacturing-friendly mobile computing devices, such as rugged tablet PCs.

Rugged tablets offer the only digital “screen” that can follow manufacturing facility workers literally everywhere they need to go – inside and outside the four walls, on foot or forklift. At 10-12” on average, these fully equipped computers are the only digital devices truly lightweight and durable enough to provide the necessary mobility and reliability to keep production on schedule and workers productive enough to make “each” customer order to customized specs.

Now, I don’t know the specific technologies that Harley-Davidson selected to mobilize its York factory. I just know they were smart to recognize the significance of mobile technology in modern manufacturing. While Industry 4.0 is still misunderstood and deemed risky by some U.S. manufacturers, industry leaders recognize that controlled risks are often necessary to stay relevant. For Harley, the risk is providing great rewards and they remain the leader of the pack.

That’s because, at the core, Industry 4.0 is all about increasing data capture and using that data intelligently. By executing a mobility-driven solution from day one of their modernization efforts, manufacturers have the power “tools” they need to stay agile as Industry 4.0 approaches. Many rugged tablet-based mobile platforms are actually designed today to help manufacturers make sense of all that anticipated data tomorrow – and apply it in a meaningful way.