Mobile Devices in Manufacturing Environments

Industry 4.0

February 25, 2016

mobile devices in manufacturing

Whether it’s due to the Internet of Things (IoT) or simply the remarkable decline in cost, companies are rushing to equip their employees with smart mobile devices or allowing them to bring their own device to access work systems. Manufacturing has tended to lag in this area, but as devices have become cheaper and more rugged, this area has seen an influx of smart devices as well, and they are playing a crucial role in plant operations. In fact, a recent joint study by LNS Research and MESA International showed that 54 percent of plant supervisors and 53 percent of plant managers could expect to use mobile devices to supply all of the needed information to fulfill their job responsibilities.

Source: LNS Research

Today’s manufacturing leaders are easily able to work on the go thanks to advances in technology. Consequently, these leaders are more informed and equipped to lead because of improved access to mobile applications that provide real-time data for everyday job tasks, decision making, and planning.

According to the study, increased use of mobile devices in manufacturing environments provides information to support both better decision making and improved performance, as well as the “potential to enable unprecedented levels of interaction between traditionally disconnected workers in remote locations as well as in different functional units in the value chain.”

Mobile Devices Make an Impact in Manufacturing

Much like in the consumer market, the selection of mobile devices that are useful for manufacturing professionals continues to expand and improve at a rapid pace. Organizational leaders are increasingly likely to use a variety of mobile devices in their personal lives, thus making them more comfortable utilizing the same technology (as noted in the LNS study) in their workplaces as well:

  • Smartphones to stay connected in the workplace with Internet access and a wide range of mobile apps designed for manufacturing operations.
  • Tablets, some of which are available in sturdier versions to withstand the rugged conditions of a typical manufacturing environment.
  • Smartwatches, such as the Apple Watch or the Samsung Gear, can deliver many of the same capabilities of a smartphone.
  • Health-monitoring devices, such as the FitBit Surge or the Forerunner by Garmin, are useful in supporting employee health and safety efforts.
  • Optical head-mount displays, such as Google Glass, provide powerful visual display options for manufacturing floor employees.

Implications for Manufacturing

Although mobile technology offers exciting and seemingly endless potential in the manufacturing realm, there are some implications to consider before hastening its use. The LNS Research study highlights a few of these potential considerations when weighing the value of any potential new mobile technology investment:

  • The platform: IOS, Android, or Windows
  • Device type: tablet/phablet or smartphone
  • Cybersecurity issues, as well as the complexity of supporting the bring-your-own-device movement, in which employees use a wide variety of personal mobile devices on the job rather than company-issued smartphones or tablets

Whether employees are supplying their own personal devices or using ones provided by the organization, durability and cost are important considerations to factor into any mobile technology purchasing decision. As the prices for smartphones and tablets continue to drop—some tablets sell for less than $100—it is worthwhile to weigh the cost of simply replacing these devices if damaged in the manufacturing environment versus the higher price tag for more durable, industrially hardened versions.

Security and the real possibility of data theft is another key factor to consider when shifting to greater use of mobile technology on the manufacturing floor. Vendors are beginning to install additional security controls in mobile devices such as whole device encryption settings and remote wipe options.

Supporting Layered Process Auditing with Mobile Technology

The key to harnessing the power of any form of mobile technology lies in the myriad of applications that these devices can support. One area of growing use for mobile applications is in the streamlining of quality auditing functions—for example, ISO 9001 quality management system audits or customer-mandated measures such as layered process audits (LPAs). LPAs provide insight on operational process conformance and corrective actions as required by some end manufacturers (such as automakers and aerospace and defense companies) to promote supplier quality. When implemented correctly, LPAs can help an organization to embrace a culture of continuous improvement.

Unfortunately, some organizations implement LPAs only to fulfill the customer’s requirement—if so, they are missing out on the rich benefits that LPAs can provide. To realize those benefits, manufacturers are utilizing software options that can reduce the time-consuming tasks associated with assigning and scheduling audits by up to 80 percent. LPA software solutions, which are easily supported by both smartphones and tablets, provide managers with real-time manufacturing data for planning and decision making. These software solutions also help eliminate the chaotic nature of paper-based audits and checklists and allow managers to start finding and mitigating process issues faster.

Utilizing LPA software apps on mobile devices is a logical approach because nearly two-thirds of American adults own a smartphone, according to the Pew Research Center. As a result, most manufacturing employees likely are well versed in the use of mobile technology, which can allow auditors to effectively cover all areas of manufacturing.

By automating an organization’s LPA system with software, auditors can comfortably use a tablet or other mobile device to perform the required audits quickly and efficiently. This eliminates the need for time-consuming data entry of audit findings and results. Handheld personal devices can be used away from specific workstations or even without a Wi-Fi connection with software that offers the option to sync the auditor’s findings after the audit is completed and an Internet connection is available.

With mobile devices becoming more affordable, the workforce more comfortable with its use, and an explosion of apps designed for the manufacturing realm, now is the time to consider the newest technology options for improving quality and productivity.