Finding the right role for mobile business applications in manufacturing

Maturing technologies could accelerate adoption of enterprise mobility in manufacturing organizations in the coming year.

When it comes to what’s hot and over-hyped these days, mobile applications are right up there -- lagging only such leaders as cloud computing and Justin Bieber. But surveys looking into adoption rates of mobile business applications in manufacturing tell a different story.

Interest in mobile ERP and mobile business intelligence (BI) may be high, but applications are just breaking into manufacturing organizations, and even early adopters are using the programs selectively, mainly for tablet-toting senior executives. One reason for the low adoption rates: Many of today’s commercial apps still fall far short of their potential, analysts say.

But this could all change in the months ahead. “It’s striking how the commitments and investments to mobile integration by software vendors have accelerated dramatically,” said Howard Dresner, chief research officer for Dresner Advisory Services LLC, which specializes in the BI market. “We’ve come a long way from last year when a majority of them said that mobile is ‘very important’ to the overwhelming majority now saying mobile is ‘critically important.’ ”   

Nevertheless, vendors and users alike will have to overcome a number of roadblocks before mobile BI and ERP become ubiquitous on ultra-thin notebooks, tablets and smartphones in manufacturing organizations. One problem is that ERP applications are among the largest and most complex systems that manufacturers run, and complexity doesn’t translate well to mobile devices.

“It has always been easier to get data into ERP than to get actionable intelligence out,” said Cindy Jutras, principal at Mint Jutras, a research firm in Windham, N.H.

She and other analysts say the trick is not to duplicate the full ERP or BI experience on a small screen. A better approach is bite-size apps similar to what consumers download from apps stores. For manufacturers, that means special-use programs that deliver exception alerts from ERP order-management systems, enable approval-process sign-offs or display real-time key performance indicator (KPI) summaries in BI dashboards. Mobile apps like these could help save time.

“Today, when people get an email, text message or phone call about a problem they have to call someone back or send another email to get more information,” Jutras said. “They can’t go directly to the source of the data.”

Mobile computing interest grows

While gaps may remain between the dream and reality of mobile ERP and BI apps for manufacturers, interest among users continues to grow. A key driver is ballooning tablet sales: Technology researcher Gartner Inc. (Stamford, Conn.) estimates that worldwide tablet sales rose a whopping 261% in 2011 and may grow steadily into 2016, when more than 900 million tablets could be in circulation.

At the same time, business executives are seeing the potential of matching mobile devices with enterprise applications. In a recent survey of North American manufacturers sponsored by an ERP vendor, 13% of the executive respondents cited mobile capabilities as the top feature when selecting enterprise programs, while 68% ranked mobility on a par with other features.

Mobile BI is garnering similar attention. It came in as one of the top choices in a survey Dresner conducted about mobile applications -- just behind obvious choices, such as e-mail and calendaring and scheduling programs. In all, 68% of the respondents characterized mobile BI as either “critical” or “very important,” compared with 52% in a similar 2010 survey. Dresner calls the rise of mobile applications a “paradigm shift” as significant as the Internet itself.

However, the number of organizations that moved from planning to actual deployment of mobile BI apps in the last year was smaller than what some analysts predicted, Dresner said, adding that a significant jump in adoptions may occur in 2012.

To my way of thinking, this is the new computing platform. You can either get with the program or you can be left behind.

Howard Dresner, chief research officer, Dresner Advisory Services LLC

For now, senior executives remain the biggest users of mobile BI. Dresner’s research shows this group increased mobile BI use from 68% to 82% in 2011 while adoption by middle managers reached only about 55%. Another indicator of the sector’s immaturity is that today’s mobile BI applications primarily deliver data without allowing managers to input information from the field.

Mobile ERP challenges remain

For mobile ERP and BI to really take off, progress must be made in three problem areas -- device management, including security, wireless access and mobile application maturity, according to experts.

Organizations need to implement mobile device management software to monitor and control the large numbers of mobile computers coming into enterprises, whether as hardware officially provisioned by the IT department or “bring your old device” models that straddle business and personal worlds. Management software is vital for understanding how and when mobile devices access critical enterprise data and for decommissioning the computers if they’re lost or stolen. IT managers must further bolster mobile ERP security with new usage policies written for expressly mobile applications and with endpoint security solutions that control the flow of information to and from mobile ERP users.

Even with faster internal Wi-Fi networks and nationwide 3G and 4G wireless coverage, network access may be a problem for some users, depending on whether they’re working in conference rooms, in warehouses, on shop floors or at customer locations. In some cases, productivity hinges on whether a mobile ERP app offers store-and-forward capabilities, which save data on the device if communications are broken and then load updates to the central data center when links are re-established.

Future mobile BI apps

But the biggest driver of all for manufacturers to readily adopt mobile ERP and BI applications may be the maturing of the software itself. Many of the apps could work like the beta software Jutras has seen that lets users download a small, relatively inexpensive program designed to address a specific need in an organization. These apps also come with customization tools that enable companies to tweak the basic apps for a particular challenge or business opportunity. Jutras expects the first wave of these purpose-built, customizable apps to arrive by the second quarter of 2012. 

Whether they choose this model or something different, enterprise software vendors will be under intense pressure to develop mobile enterprise apps that deliver a clear return for manufacturers. “To my way of thinking, this is the new computing platform,” Dresner said. “You can either get with the program or you can be left behind.”

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