Getting Mobility & Smart Connected Devices Right on the Factory Floor

Posted by Andrew Hughes on Thu, Feb 18, 2016 @ 12:13 PM

In a recent webinar, we were asked what is the appropriate size of mobile device to use on the factory floor. Of course, the answer was “It depends”. Not helpful, but true. This led us to think a bit further about the question and to look again at our recent mobile questions in our Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT) survey.

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In the survey we only asked questions about generic devices – tablets, phones and similar tools for interacting with manufacturing software systems such as Manufacturing Operations Management (MOM) and plant quality systems.

The survey results to date, shown here, are encouraging; the deployment of mobile devices, indeed standard ones such as iPad and other tablets, is becoming the norm. Apple is clearly leading the way and all major platforms are well represented. Since most applications in this type of device use pure web based interfaces, the manufacturer and operating system of devices are probably less important than the convenience.andrew-1.png

What Effects Convenience?

Convenience is often translated as “what I am used to,” but we should try to consider a number of important factors such as:

  • What do I use the device for? Data entry, looking at diagrams, work instructions…
  • Can I do my job when I have my device in hand, pocket or wherever?
  • Who uses the device?

Generally speaking, the more generic devices tend to get used for a large number of different tasks, whereas wearable and small devices might be single task oriented. We will return to this category later.

When we are considering the size of generic devices there will always be compromises. System designers need to work with factory floor staff to learn what are the real needs, as opposed to the nice to have features that look great but ad little to efficiency and quality. For example, in a complex assembly factory, such as aircraft assembly, workers move around a lot. They have to undertake extremely complex tasks under little supervision, and only with their tablet as a means of communication and the sole source of information. In this case, size will focus more on functionality than mobility. A full sized tablet (or even a 13” PC convertible into tablet) is likely to be a suitable tool for our intrepid aircraft assembler as he works all over the huge airframe. He will be able to read detailed engineering drawings, play 3D models to see how to assemble parts and, vitally, be able to record and sign off everything he does.  Access to design information and the ability to update the as built record, and sign everything off are all achievable on a full sized tablet. It is clear that trying to do all this on a phone or small tablet would prove frustrating at best, dangerous if proper procedures could not be followed.

In many other less demanding cases a full-sized tablet will be more of a hindrance than a help; while we believe that phone-sized devices will be very useful for simple data entry and signing off work, but much more limited for instructions and help. Manufacturers should look at midsize tablets (or really big phones) as a compromise between portability and conveniences for a lot of general purpose tasks – size will be fine and they still slip into the pocket of a pair of work trousers.

The scope for mobile devices goes far beyond the general purpose devices running HTML5 capable web browsers. Size, function and complexity can all be addressed by:

Wearables and Special Devices

Technology on the factory floor is intended to help improve product quality, productivity, and safety among many other things. When new technology is introduced there is often a first mover’s tendency to try to do everything possible with the new toys. Wearables and smart devices are an extreme example of potential playthings. However, we already see examples of smart glasses, wearable bar code scanners, and positioning devices using simple Bluetooth. These help to ease everyday tasks such as scanning when both hands are full, checking details of components, and can be of great help to supervisors and managers who want a different view on their mobile device depending on location. All our kids are quite used to location based services – let’s use them in factories too.

It is Not Necessarily Easy, But Get Mobility Going

Mobile device connectivity and security have to be planned in the context of a plant or enterprise system. Many manufacturers are starting to use their IIoT platforms to provide these vital services. However you do it, basic security, something that our surveys show to be less solid than one might hope in the factory environment, becomes absolutely critical when you go wireless and mobile. After security and connectivity come the first real steps. Some time ago we encouraged you to take your first steps into the IIoT. Since then we have looked at many aspects of the IIoT across multiple business processes.

As you can see from our survey numbers many manufacturers are getting into mobile devices; now is the time to incorporate one or two smart mobile devices to enhance the user experience. Consider size, but remember that it is functionality and productivity improvement that are the real measures of success. Mobile devices will drive improved business processes and more connectivity across the enterprise. It might even help people be more productive on the shop floor.

NEW Research Spotlight on strategies and recommendations for minimizing risk through a migration away from monolithic, single-plant MOM architectures through exploration of Cloud and IIoT technologies that are advancing in manufacturing today. Manufacturing Operations Management

Tags: MOM, Mobility, Smart Connected Assets, IIoT