iPad, meet forklift: tablets on the manufacturing plant floor

First it won accolades as the next killer consumer device. Then itslipped into the backpacks and briefcases of white-collar information workers, and in some cases it’s becoming a corporate-sanctioned alternative to the laptop.

Now the Apple iPad — and, to a lesserextent, emerging competitors in the burgeoning tablet market — are starting topop up on the plant floor and in distribution centers and warehouses,promising to wring efficiencies and cost savings out of industrialoperations by offering mobility and real-time data visibility toworkers in manufacturing.

“When Apple created the iPad, the [manufacturing] industry had a sortof wake-up call … that mobility is not only relevant for peopleoutside the company, but also for those inside the company who haveinformation needs and are not tied to their desk, but are tied to theirasset,” says Pierfrancesco Manenti, a manufacturing analyst at IDCInsights.

“With a relatively small investment, companies can re-create the wholeinformation-on-the-fly scenario that was nearly impossible beforeunless they made enormous investments in PCs, cable networks andruggedized PCs.”

Specifically, workers strolling the plant floor while armed with atablet device can, for example, readily track key performanceindicators, get real-time alerts on potential equipment failures, tapinto corporate data and even control machines remotely.

Featuring wireless capabilities andspacious, high-resolution screens, these units are well equipped todeliver visual or even animated work instructions to an operator of aspecific machine, and could even update those instructions in real timeif there were changes.

Thanks to higher-end capabilities like onboard video and voice andgeo-reference information, a tablet could steer a worker to an areawhere there’s a problem on a production line or in a warehouse. Theworker could then use the tablet to record a video of the problem andsend the video to the corporate office for more effectivetroubleshooting.

A toe in the water…
All good stuff, but to be clear: The iPad-led tablet invasion intooperations is just getting started. Many experts say there arelimitations to what is essentially still a consumer device. Forexample, there are questions about the durability of tablets in harshenvironments, not to mention concerns about security and gaps infunctionality, particularly when it comes to working with bar codes and scanners, acornerstone of warehouse operations.

Still, just as the iPad is coming into office suites in the hands ofpeople who love using it in their personal lives, that same “consumerization of IT” trend isprompting manufacturing and IT execs to consider tablets as aeconomical and accessible replacements for expensive ruggedized PCs orhard-to-use Windows-based dedicated mobile devices.

Sensing an opportunity around tablets and mobility, major vendors ofmanufacturing, warehousing and logistics software are busy working withkey customers to pilot experimental apps and to explore how to bestleverage the technology.

SAP, for example, is in theprocess of looking at its product line and creating a road map forpotential apps, including ones for manufacturing, says Frank Schuler,vice president solution management for manufacturing at SAP. Othermajor vendors, including Red Prairie, which offerswarehouse management and logistics software, AspenTech,a provider of process manufacturing optimization software, and RockwellAutomation, are also actively developing and testing appsthat will have a home on the iPad and other mobile devices.

As in other markets where users and vendors are exploring thepossibilities of mobile computing, the challenge for manufacturingsoftware vendors is to develop apps that take full advantage oftablets’ unique user interfaces while still meeting customers’ businessrequirements.

“The newer devices open up totally new ways of people accessinginformation and navigating through the app in a graphical way,” saysSchuler. “The navigation paradigm lends itself to a more casual userthan the typical user interaction.”

Cruising the warehouse The quest for more mobility on the plant floor is hardly new. Windows-based mobile devices have been available for years, and many of them are “ruggedized” to survivethe harsher environments of factories and warehouses. But the general consensus is that they are limited in functionality and saddled with screens too small to be useful.
Ruggedized PCs have been another option, but they are expensive(typically around $5,000) and don’t untether users from the need to beat a specific location to get information feeds or to input data on thefly. Ruggedized laptops somewhat solve the mobility problem, butthey’re still much heavier and more expensive than their consumercousins.

MBXSystems, a manufacturer of hardware appliances and embeddedsystems, had traditionally used Motorola Windows Mobile devices andbar-code scanners in its warehouse to keep track of inventory and topick orders, but the devices never lived up to their promise, accordingto Justin Formella, CIO of the Wauconda, Ill.-based company.

The screens were tiny, the devices were slow and there was no room fora keyboard. Some of the mobile units required a stylus for input, butthose would often get lost, so operators used real pens on the screen,which destroyed them. “These devices were marketed as ruggedized andindustrial, but they didn’t hold up well,” Formella says.

As for newer Windows-based mobile devices, MBX looked but was still notimpressed. “We did evaluate the newer generation of devices, but to behonest, most of the drawbacks still weren’t addressed,” Formella says.

After considering a number of options, Formella turned to Apple iPod Touches. When the iPadwas introduced, he felt he finally had a viable solution.

“For years, it has felt like we’ve had our hands tied with the poorperformance of various Windows Mobile-based touch devices,” heexplains. “With most of our [custom-built] enterprise software runningas a Web application, the iPad has become the perfect match for us as alow-cost and high-performance mobility solution.”

Along with Bluetooth bar-code scanners,iPads, enclosed in industrialized casing made by OtterBox, are mountedvia specialty hardware from Ram Mounts onto carts that cruise the MBXwarehouse.

Since they first started using the tablets last November — 10 iPadswere deployed initially — workers in the MBX warehouse can pick, onaverage, 14% more orders per month while reducing picking defects by20%.

In the factory, employees no longer have to carry clipboards and usepen and paper to record notes about exceptions or write descriptions ofquality problems — and later re-enter the information on a PC (whichthey sometimes never got around to doing at all, Formella admits). “Nowthey can do everything they’d do on their desk on the iPad whilepicking — they can even check email,” he says.

Plans call for pushing instructions on how to assemble the hardwareappliances and embedded systems MBX manufactures out to the iPads.Navigating the instructions will be easier on the iPad’s touchscreen;currently, operators have to sit in front of a monitor and manuallyscroll through assembly details.

MBX’s iPad rollout hasn’t been without its share of challenges,Formella admits. Security wasn’t an issue, becauseeverything is done via the Web-based system, which is protected withstandard SSL encryption and passwords; no data is stored on the iPadsthemselves.

Still, the group had to jury-rig the tablet to accommodate theBluetooth bar-code reader, and Formella had to take some steps to lockdown the devices to prevent operators from installing personal apps –including the staff favorite, Angry Birds. Physical theft wasn’tas much of a concern, Formella says, because the devices are attachedto the carts, making them pretty difficult to take off with.

While he’s happy with the Apple products, Formella emphasizes that it’s the tablet form factor, rather than the brand, that works for MBX.

“We did evaluate other tablets, but at the time there wasn’t anythingcompetitive [to the iPad]. If we were to do the project today, I thinkwe may have chosen one of the Android-based tablets, mostly becausethey don’t seem to have the same issues and workarounds associated with making the Bluetooth scanner work,” Formella says.

iPad, meet forklift Markley Enterprises, a smallmanufacturer of point-of-purchase displays, was so sold on the idea ofusing iPads in the warehouse that the company modified itsbrowser-based warehouse management system from Red Prairie to work onthe real estate of the iPad.

Like MBX, Elkhart, Ind.-based Markley has progressed from WindowsMobile devices to iPod Touches to the iPad and is currently using fouriPads and eight iPod Touches. The iPads are mounted on forklifts,eliminating the need for workers to walk back and forth to computerterminals to retrieve instructions on managing inventory or pickingorders.

At the same time that it deployed the iPads, Markley also eliminated abatch process and reworked a system to be able to combine orders fromthe same location. Those changes, combined with the iPad rollout, meanworkers are now able to pick multiple jobs simultaneously, resulting ina reduction in travel time within the warehouse, says Tim Markley,president of the company. And with the iPads affixed to the forklifts,there is little or no chance that they’ll be dropped or damaged,mitigating concerns about durability.

“We’re a small company, and our resourcesare limited. This is something we did that didn’t cost a lot, and we’refinding big results,” says Tim Markley, President, MarkleyEnterprisesMarkley, who estimates the total cost of the project –including the purchase price of the hardware, programming costs andsite-license fees — to be in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Using the iPad and a wireless warehouse management system (WMS),Markley estimates the time employees spend tracking inventory has beenshaved by about 30%. The iPad has also opened up new possibilitiesaround data capture. Using the iForm data-capture app purchasedfrom the Apple App Store, Markley’s IT group designed a quality-controlprocess whereby workers collect data about the physical status ofpending jobs, using video and voice to annotate observations andproblems.

The iPad text data is fed wirelessly into the WMS, where it can beanalyzed for trends and where workers can request help solvingproblems. “Mobile devices are key to the whole thing,” Markley says.”We’ve tried in the past to collect data with forms, but it just wasn’treliable and it took too much time.”

iPads in the Pfizer lab
Pfizer has a number of pilotprojects underway to see how the iPad and possibly other tablets canfacilitate collaboration among scientists and deliver critical datacloser to the plant floor, according to Eric Cordi, an associateresearch fellow at the New York-based pharmaceutical giant.

Working with iPhones, iPod Touches and the iPad, Pfizer is usingAspenTech’s new Aspen Properties Mobile App toserve up information on the properties of particular chemicals andtechnical literature to chemists and scientists in certain areas of theplant; traditionally, this type of material had only been accessibleoff the plant floor in handbooks or online technical resources.

While the devices in their current form are not allowed on the plantfloor because of the risk of fire and other safety reasons, they arewithin reach just off the floor in adjacent offices and labs.

“Process development scientists work in many different environments,and fluid access to information is an important part of the creativeprocess,” Cordi says. Without leaving the plant floor, they can usemobile applications to quickly access useful data to influence thedesign of the next experiment, he adds.

While the business case for mobile devices in operations like those atPfizer has never been stronger, it’s still early to call the iPad asure thing for manufacturing, says Kenneth Brant, an manufacturingindustry analyst at Gartner.

For the harshest environments where there are copious amounts of dirtand water, the iPad and other new tablets remain untested, he pointsout. “There still a question around the form factor in terms of theseconsumer devices really making it in those environments,” he says.

Such caveats notwithstanding, there is still great interest in theagility that the new generation of tablets brings to the plant floor,whether the ultimate device ends up being the iPad, a competing tablet,or a new, revamped, ruggedized mobile device.

“There is a great business case for substituting tablets in place ofPCs on the plant floor” says IDC’s Manenti. “When you want somethingthat’s compact and portable and there’s no need for a keyboard, it’sexactly what’s needed.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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