When mobile computing devices meet manufacturing, form still follows function

Deciding where tablets and smartphones fit best in a manufacturing environment can be daunting, especially with all the recent rollouts of fancy new gadgets. Here are some pointers on choosing the right mobile computing devices.

Unless you’re a hopeless gadget jockey, the latest bells and whistles on new tablet computers and smartphones aren’t reason enough to reach for a purchase order. Only when you see where large-screen tablets and ultra-portable phones fit best with your business operations is it really time to invest in mobile computing devices.

Start by exploring whether mobile computing devices can improve supply-chain efficiency by helping the company react to problems or opportunities more quickly.

“Manufacturers are constantly worried about making processes run quicker or stocking less inventory in their warehouses,” said Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile computing at Gartner Inc., a research firm based in Stamford, Conn. “A lot of what causes delays in supply chains are exceptions, and these mobile devices can help address these unplanned events by getting people the information they need to quickly solve problems.”

The trick is to determine which aspects of the supply chain will benefit from an infusion of mobile innovations and which ones can continue to run fine without the latest gizmos. Here’s what mobile veterans say are some top considerations for manufacturers.

Mobile computing screen sizes are key

First, look for matches between mobile hardware formats and job functions. Tablets and smartphones, as well as ruggedized and pen-based notebooks, are all candidates for people who fill out work orders and need to reference various reports. The screen size and processing power of these devices lend them to displaying page-sized forms and columns of spreadsheet data. Of course, even the best mobile device is all for show if the company’s processes are predominantly paper based.

Another tablet candidate is the co-called “campus warrior,” someone who constantly roams the company’s offices and production facilities. Traditionally, they’ve carried laptops, but the price for a tablet and a backup PC together is less than a single well-equipped notebook, said Bob Parker, group vice president at IDC Manufacturing Insights in Framingham, Mass. “A tablet format is big enough that it can replace the laptop when these people are roaming the campus, and the devices are lighter and more convenient to carry,” Parker explained.

The smaller screens on smartphones make them inappropriate for displaying full-page inventory reports or spreadsheets, but their real-time communications capabilities may be an advantage. Phone calls, text messages, emails and push-to-talk communications make smartphones essential for people hungry for real-time information, including production managers, executives and field salespeople.

The bottom line: Don’t look for one-size-fits-all mobile solutions. “A company is going to need a combination of devices for the typical workplace,” Dulaney said.

Other considerations in mobile computing devices

Another factor to consider is the significant time lag -- eight months or more -- that will likely pass before ruggedized versions of new mobile devices hit the market. Adding to implementation delays is the time developers will need to customize standard business applications to work with updated mobile operating systems. Fortunately, lead times for software customizations may shrink in the future.

“Over the next three or four years, I think that any process you can do with a laptop you’ll be able to do on a tablet or a smartphone,” Parker said.

In the meantime, some companies are getting around these application-porting issues by using tablets and smartphones as “thin clients,” which don’t actually run programs or store data internally but instead use wireless networks to tap into back-end servers maintained centrally by IT. “This eliminates the need to invest in new development tools because you’re not putting any code on the device -- it’s coming through the network using a Web browser,” Dulaney said.

Unless there’s a thin client in their future, some companies may decide that the best place for the newest tablets and smartphones isn’t on the factory floor but on the back burner. What the older generation of notebooks and PCs lacks in glitz it makes up for in ruggedness and application compatibility.

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