Look around. Smartphones and tablets are everywhere -- even on the plant floor.
Mobile is quickly becoming an indispensable communications and computing platform for a wide range of manufacturing enterprises, industry experts say. From core manufacturing and logistics to point of sale, mobile manufacturing is poised to become the primary access point that allows the entire workforce to better do its job.
But to develop and implement the best back-end mobile applications that drive business and create value, every manufacturer making the transition needs to focus on key practices.
First, develop and implement purpose-built applications that formulate answers to questions, said Cindy Jutras, president of New Hampshire-based Mint Jutras. Manufacturing decision makers "aren't voicing a need, like 'I need a PLM app' or 'I need a SCM app,'" Jutras said. "Instead they say, 'I have a problem. I need to solve it.'"
Implement for the end user
To implement mobile manufacturing apps that solve problems, manufacturers need to understand the end user, experts say.
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"Think about people and business objectives before technology," said George Lawrie, vice president and principal analyst of Forrester Research Inc., in Cambridge, Mass. Stay focused on what the role of the end user is, he added.
Manufacturers must first consider a few questions, said Jeffrey Hammond, principal analyst at Forrester. These include: "Who is using this app? The assembly line, maintenance staff or sales reps?" and "Is the app going to be used mostly on a smartphone or a tablet?"
When it's understood how the mobile device will be used, the best way to develop and implement applications will become clearer, Hammond added.
One of the best ways to develop good applications is by creating a "fantastic user experience," said Ojas Rege, vice president of strategy at MobileIron, a mobile device and application security and management firm in Mountain View, Calif. "Apps work when they have defined functions that are presented to the user clearly."
The rise of mobile computing has been user-driven, Rege said. And it has forced IT to respond. "The best companies now think of themselves as consumer app developers, just with a different kind of consumer," he said.
And just like with consumer app development, developers of manufacturing apps need to plan for multiple releases a year to keep pace with a platform such as Android, which has released 11 upgrades in the past four years, according to Hammond. iOS has updated just as frequently.
"You're going to have new devices that continually get updated," he said. "There is a constant drumbeat of new device capability. There are more hardened devices, more smart sensors on factory floors. If you can't move fast, your competitiveness will lag."
Finding the best internal fit
IT decision makers in manufacturing subsectors, from textile mills to chemical manufacturing, also need to carefully identify where in the company mobile will best serve the business, Rege said.
First, Rege recommends, find the paper in the system. "Nothing has as broad and substantial an ROI impact on a manufacturing process as getting paper out of the system," he said. "The key is you want the user to do as little data input as possible and not have a parallel paper process."
Again, the end user's needs should determine how this is done, guided by questions such as "How am I really using the device or application?" and "How will the data most easily be entered and accessed?"
"The app should have a nice, simple front end for the user. They will want a lot of drop-down menus and selections, instead of writing free form," Rege said. "The beauty of this is that users love clicking on boxes and choosing things from drop-downs."
Second, find the points of action, Rege added. Whether an inspector is inspecting a car on an assembly line, a worker realizes a part is in short supply, or a delivery truck driver makes and records a delivery, mobile manufacturing adds value.
"Businesses are successful when individuals can make great decisions and take the right actions at any time and any place. So the goal is to make computing and data pervasive and available on a mobile device whenever they need it," he said.
Security's a big concern
Perhaps most important, no mobile implementation plan should be without a clear-eyed focus on security, said Mike Brannon, director in charge of IT infrastructure and security at New NGC Inc. (formerly National Gypsum Co.) in Charlotte, N.C.
A 28-year veteran of the drywall manufacturer, with a history firmly rooted in IT security, Brannon takes the issue of protecting the organization's digital assets seriously. But he is equally passionate about developing applications that National Gypsum mobile users really need.
"That's why we allowed employees to bring their own devices," he said. "But with BYOD [bring your own device] comes great security concerns."
Issues centering on authorization and access topped the list of Brannon's best practices while implementing National Gypsum's mobile strategy.
"We had to have a way to make sure the people using mobile devices -- accessing email and data -- were all correctly authorized," he said. Now when a new employee is enrolled, there is an easy but secure way for the system to authorize that enrollment.
Conversely, Brannon said, "we wanted to have assurance from IT that if an employee terminated employment, we could quickly erase data from the device and block access to the system."
New NGC is a far-flung operation, with plants all over North America. Now a growing number of its 250 mobile sales and headquarters-based employees can securely communicate and access data from wherever they are at any time, driving a more efficient manufacturing processes.
Security, agility and great design are only a handful of best practices needed during the application development and implementation phase, experts say.
"The interesting thing about mobile is it joins up the online and offline worlds," Lawrie said. "There has always been a problem where the digital doesn't match up with the physical," he said.
This can be particularly true in the manufacturing sector, but experts stress that mobile manufacturing has the potential to bring the two worlds together.
"Mobile is the next driver of process change in manufacturing," Rege said. "It will let you do things you couldn't do before. But organizations must decide: If they have that computing, what are they going to do with it?"
About the author
Aaron Lester is a Boston-based freelance journalist who has been published in CIO magazine, The Boston Globe and The Christian Science Monitor. When he isn’t writing about business, technology or innovation, he can usually be found playing hockey with his sons on their backyard rink. Follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronLester. Email him at aaronglester@ gmail.com.