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The Automation “Handshake”: How Mobile Devices Make It Happen

Automation is happening quickly across all industries, no real news there. But McKinsey Global Institute, in a new report, has identified new areas of work that are now susceptible to automation. We all know that manual, repetitive work has long been a target of automation. But high-skill activities that require interaction with machines will also benefit from automation; or, perhaps better described as the act of converting skilled workers into information workers.

Specifically, the McKinsey Global Institute report indicates the following (with points I want to emphasis in bold):

“The activities most susceptible to automation are physical ones in highly structured and predictable environments, as well as data collection and processing . In the United States, these activities make up 51 percent of activities in the economy, accounting for almost $2.7 trillion in wages. They are most prevalent in manufacturing, accommodation and food service, and retail trade.

“And it’s not just low-skill, low-wage work that could be automated; middle-skill and high-paying, high-skill occupations, too, have a degree of automation potential. As processes are transformed by the automation of individual activities , people will perform activities that complement the work that machines do , and vice versa.”

That’s just one reason why “automation is happening,” though. While “it won’t arrive overnight,” automation “will bring substantial benefits to businesses and economies worldwide.” Assuming people and technology are able to “work hand in hand.” Therefore, manufacturers, supply chain partners, and other organizations most susceptible to leveraging automation – those with “highly structured and predictable environments” and who conduct “a lot of data collection and processing” – need to be able to facilitate strong handshakes between workers and automated systems via mobile devices. Another reason why investing in just any mobile device in your plant, warehouse or distribution center just won’t suffice.

After all, we all know the implications of the “weakest link in a chain”. But, to better illustrate the point I’m trying to make, let’s take a look at the wreck of Shell’s oil exploration rig, as described in this New York Times article, “ The Wreck of the Kulluk”. The mission was to explore for oil in the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska, which may have been worth over a hundred billion barrels to Royal Dutch Shell. Their $200M rig had four huge shackles which were used to anchor or tow the rig, and according to the article, were taken from a parts bin of unknown origin, and then attached to the rig. The failure of two of these four shackles contributed to the loss of the entire rig; only by the heroic work of the Coast Guard, the crew of 18 was saved. The lesson from this scenario relates closely to the point of view expressed by the McKinsey survey: The true value of more effective data utilization and automation comes in the form of quality, efficiency and productivity gains. But that requires an effective handshake between workers’ mobile devices and automation systems, both of which serve as real-time data sources that, collectively, disseminate data between the shop floor and factory servers. In other words, mobile devices have become a secondary “command center” for workflow-related information, providing on-demand visibility into machine performance, for example, and serving as the primary input for data acquired via serial port connections and barcode scans. Don’t risk losing all of these potential gains on a mobile device that isn’t up to the job. Even if you think you will “save a few dollars upfront”.

Automation on the Oil Rig may have prevented disaster

  Keep in mind: If the mobile device that’s responsible for data handoffs between information workers and other technology systems fails to facilitate accurate and timely data capture, fails to interop with other technology system, or just plain fails (because it can’t sustain the harsh abuse of workers or surrounding environmental extremes), then automated systems will subsequently fail to meet performance expectations. That’s why best-in-class mobility solutions, such as those built upon a rugged tablet PC platform, are gaining traction worldwide as other tablet, laptop and handheld devices lose market share.

In other words, automated factories (for example) need workers with capable mobile computers to support all workflows leveraged, from the time the first component is delivered to the assembly line to when the final, completed appliance is delivered to the customer. So, what is a “capable mobile computer”? It’s certainly not the technology commonly found in consumer-grade tablets. Though some organizations have tried to save money with off-the-shelf devices, they’ve quickly discovered these tablets’ three common shortcomings: They don’t stand up to the rough environment; they are hard for IT to support due to software interface incompatibility with their Windows OS-based servers; and they don’t have the I/O to connect to and monitor the production line equipment. (You’re lucky to find a consumer tablet with a headphone jack, much less true serial ports, barcode imagers, RFID tag readers, etc.)

Mobile Rugged Tablet Automation in Manufacturing

In contrast, rugged tablet technology is explicitly designed to be the central enabler of highly efficient operations. In fact, there are a number of benefits that manufacturers stand to gain from rugged tablets as they strive for Lean Manufacturing and higher quality production environments: greater automation; increased operational speed; cost reductions and improved inventory management. Rugged tablets can also be used to refine planning, capitalize on new technologies and streamline processes. Here’s why:

  • Rugged tablets facilitate a paperless factory that eliminates handwritten notes and all the errors that subsequently occur during the creation and management of paper records (input accuracy errors, transcription errors, lack of proper dissemination, etc.). Paper-based procedures are not part of an agile manufacturing operation.

  • Rugged tablets allow for more automated processes when workers are checking stations or need to use barcodes to exactly record the equipment in use, for example. And don’t equate camera-based barcode readers with scan-engines that are faster, more accurate, and can read barcodes from a distance.

  • Manufacturers are forever improving their build times, the predictability of operations, and use of just-in-time techniques, all of which benefit from rugged tablets’ real-time data access, support of enterprise-level analytical tools, and the ability to always be available.

  • Many rugged tablets are ready today to interop with whatever supplementary or complementary technologies manufacturers may want to bring online tomorrow as we enter the Industry 4.0. generation. This includes support for the more expansive automation system already noted, as well as Big Data-defined workflows, the widespread integration of IoT technologies, and the on-boarding of new application software and operating systems, such as Windows 10 or an Android OS.

Rugged Xplore Tablets provide the most I/O connectivity options to best send/receive data

Remember, though, not all rugged tablets are created equal. If you want to ensure a strong handshake occurs between your workers and other technology systems, and minimize the change your workers will experience as they transition to this new technology-driven environment, look for rugged tablets that…

  • Offer a wealth of integrated I/O connectivity options that identify and communicate with the automated manufacturing stations throughout your manufacturing shop floor, including True Serial ports, plenty of USB connectors, RFID readers, and barcode scanners.

  • Are equipped with advanced communications technologies and powerful Intel Core-Series processors that accelerate the delivery of business information to all stakeholders, whether on the shop floor, loading dock, in cold storage, or an office at HQ.

  • Enable supervisors to easily transition from their office to the shop floor with the same level of accessibility to critical applications and real-time data. Look for tablets that can dock to a full-sized monitor, keyboard and mouse “in the office” and then dismount in a quick grab-and-go fashion so that supervisors to head to the shop floor in an instant without disconnecting from the ERP, WMS or other workflow applications.

  • Are software-agnostic and highly compatible with third-party applications and technologies. This allows you to identify best-price, best-in-class hardware and software across your entire IT system with complete confidence that the rugged tablets will integrate seamlessly.

Just remember: Don’t let the choice of an inadequate tablet be the broken shackle that costs you all the benefits of automation.

For more tips on transitioning to a mobile manufacturing or warehousing environment, check these out :