Enterprise Mobility & the Connected Worker Blog

FINALLY, A Place for Mobility in the Connected Factory

by Matthew Hopkins | 04/29/2016

Manufacturing—whether it’s transforming steel into an automotive vehicle or grains into cereal—is the process by which raw goods become finished goods; it is a fundamental component of the value chain and central part of the global economy. Many manufacturing processes have transcended time relatively unchanged and unaffected by the technological innovations occurring outside factory walls. Pressure to reduce costs and improve margins, however, has compelled factories to make strategic moves in pursuit of reducing labor costs; whether it is changing venue or investing in technologies that automate human tasks.  

Assembly line equipment/technology has reduced lead times and cost by automating processes and taking the place of labor, a variable cost. Moreover, technologies enabling additive manufacturing, such as 3D printing, have, in some respects, replaced traditional manufacturing processes for smaller, simplistic parts; thus streamlining processes and transforming the sector. For this reason and others, capital investments in equipment will continue, especially as better access to, and distribution of, information improves its efficiency. Responding to market conditions and cutting or increasing production rapidly (just in time production) to meet fluctuating demand is crucial for maximizing efficiency and remaining competitive. Sensitivity to external demand metrics helps improve efficiency at a high-level, but the process of production itself should follow waste-minimizing practices as well. Managing the shop-floor to maximize effectiveness dictates that equipment is functional, employees efficient, and errors minimized.

Mobile as a Means to an End
Mobile technology—devices and software—plays a small, but important role in the manufacturing space, especially as trends such as the internet of things (IoT) gain traction. In 2015, our survey among technology influencers at manufacturing companies found that 36 percent of organizations actively used mobility solutions to support business initiatives. Furthermore, an additional 46 percent were either evaluating new mobility concepts/opportunities or planning mobile initiatives. Notably, human workflows and employment opportunities on the shop floor have diminished, and will continue to diminish, as factories automate more processes and invest in technology. Those workers on the assembly line were never the target of mobile initiatives in the first place; rather, factory supervisors and equipment inspectors stand to benefit most from mobile technology. Streamlining workflows, gaining real-time visibility into equipment status, and analyzing trends, these workers will benefit, not from mobility in and of itself, but rather from the greater access to information that this technology can provide.

Given mobile’s role in improving information flows, it is not surprising that 78 percent of manufacturing companies agree that mobile solutions provide their company with a competitive advantage. This advantage is demonstrated by tangible use-cases, such as predictive maintenance, workforce management, and energy management, which yield real returns on investment (ROI). Companies’ quick to realize these benefits have embraced mobility for some processes, such as inventory management, in large numbers. Sixty-one percent of manufacturers currently support mobile inventory management, whereas, only 44 percent currently support shop floor control via a mobile device. That percentage will climb in the next few years, however, because 45 percent of manufacturers noted that they plan to support this capability in the future. This incorporation of mobile into all manufacturing workflows is propelled by pressures to improve productivity and efficiency and a desire to take advantage of information flows derived from an ever growing source of sensors and devices. To support these mobile initiatives, tablets have been the device of choice (43%) followed closely by smartphones (38%).

Obstacles and Opportunities
Like any industry, mobile adoption in the manufacturing sector has occurred gradually, beginning with the “measurement” of remote, or hard to reach items on the shop floor, and progressing to plant-wide communications between things, machines, back-end databases, and workers. Nonetheless, numerous challenges to adopting data-driven technology persist despite declining prices for both software and hardware. To exploit mobile technology, wireless infrastructure and connections to back-end systems must exist; two tasks that can prove challenging for manufacturing giants, let alone small and medium-sized manufacturers. However, perhaps the most troubling obstacle that companies face in pursuit of modernized workflows is data silos. Long-standing legacy systems and IT departments’ resistance to change have hindered efforts to centralize data and make it accessible to users in a productive manner. Furthermore, manufacturing environments do not tend to be the most hospitable to technology deployments, given their often dirty, hot, and hazardous conditions. As a result, rugged devices are a natural choice, but their historically high prices and unfriendly user design frequently spurned investment as complementary technologies (IoT, ERP systems, etc.) failed to provide the value to justify the investment.

“The most significant challenge for manufacturers is the data itself and getting it to the right person or right system at the right time.”

Today, the decline in rugged device prices and the maturation of IoT and manufacturing software, to the point where it is now reliable and producing measurable returns on investment, has produced tangible use-cases and cost-savings that give new life to the idea of mobility in manufacturing. By providing key performance indicators (KPIs) and analytics, relating to machinery and human performance, mobility will prove instrumental in allowing manufacturers to compete in the next age of manufacturing. Companies able to reduce the barriers—lack of talent, data silos, security—to mobile, IoT, and data processing technology adoption will achieve a level of agility fundamental to succeeding in today’s fast moving economy.

The ultimate goal, the pinnacle, is a factory connected in all facets. Fully integrated into the value chain and responsive to changes in demand and supply, the connected factory captures data and responds accordingly to mitigate costs and maximize revenue. Equipment and factory infrastructure monitored with sensors and employees armed with mobile devices and computers serve as the inputs to powerful analytical engines that provide the KPIs crucial to making informed business decisions. Mobility plays an important role in this not-so-far-away world, enabling employees in disparate locations to input information into the ecosystem of data and act on results in real –time.  The journey towards the connected factory has begun, and those timid in their pursuit will serve as exemplars of the quickly moving forces of creative destruction.

View the 2017 Enterprise Mobility & Connected Devices Research Outline to learn more.