Mobilizing Manufacturing

By Alison Smith — June 05, 2008

The term "manufacturing" conjures images of asset-intensive environments with automated processes running 24/7. The reality is that most manufacturing environments aren't highly automated.

The vast majority have silos of automation -- centered around critical assets like large punch presses, lathes, packaging lines, and automated test centers -- that are loosely connected by information flows that federate operators, paper, and a modicum of data entry points into an infrastructure of sorts.

Mobile manufacturing capabilities will revolutionize the way manufacturers do business, bringing desperately needed levels of efficiency and agility that have not been financially feasible in the past.

In 2007, an AMR Research study examining manufacturers' appetites for mobility revealed that more than two thirds of the 250 respondents were already using basic mobile technologies within their environments.  Cell phones, the omnipresent pagers, laptops, and BlackBerrys are the devices of choice. Simply having instant access to email, alerts, and notifications delivers significant value.

Leading manufacturing enterprises, however, are looking well beyond alerts and notifications, borrowing ideas from the mobile asset maintenance and management wired world such as real-time task prioritization and work order management. Mobile-enabling most if not all of the major applications and systems -- including lean planning, quality inspection and reporting, material management, work instruction dispatch, and operations intelligence -- is viewed as important by leading manufacturers. Based on investment plans, mobile applications that address these needs will see strong growth over the next two to three years.

Furthermore, as wireless sensor technology becomes pervasive, manufacturers will be able to capture operating information directly from devices in passing. While cable networks aren't obsolete, emerging sensor technologies promise new possibilities at palatable price points.

Asset maintenance and management software providers have a jump on employing the mobile paradigm to the benefit of their users. Traditional vendors  should take a page from such companies, many of which blend GIS, GPRS, and other useful information into their mobile maintenance mash-ups.

On the operations intelligence side, look at what vendors such as Transpara have done, exposing real-time operating information in the form of real-time trends, KPIs, and notifications through BlackBerry and cell phone interfaces.

The vast majority (95%) of manufacturing software applications are built on Microsoft technology. You can't discuss the future of mobile applications in the manufacturing environment without acknowledging that reality.

Controls and automation platforms from Emerson, GE Fanuc, Siemens, ABB, Honeywell, and Invensys are all built on MSOFT. Microsoft owns the manufacturing execution systems and quality management arenas, and two thirds of the users leverage Excel spreadsheets and Access databases when rolling out proprietary apps. Factor in Microsoft's strong mobility platforms, and it's clear that the software giant is positioned to play a key role in mobilizing manufacturing applications. But it will take more than the efforts of one vendor to truly untether the manufacturing enterprise.


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