4 Considerations for a Successful Mobile Manufacturing Strategy

April 18, 2015
Pay attention to platform, device, security and reliability factors as you make your move into mobile manufacturing.

The majority of us have at least some experience with mobile functionality in our personal lives, and for many, several times over. Smartphones are now ubiquitous and the price range of tablets is such that many have adopted them as a phone and laptop “in between,” a center of the Venn diagram of mobile and functional.

And this has of course started to spill over into the manufacturing industries as well, as we begin to see that many of today’s manufacturing professionals are accessing role-based information from software applications under manufacturing operations management (MOM); asset performance management (APM); environment, health and safety (EHS) quality management; and other software categories on these same devices, facilitating quicker access to information and decision-making, and increased flexibility. And of those that have yet to invest, many are now within the planning stages.

As progress goes, this is certainly a good thing. But, as with any technology, there are also implications to keep in mind. And for manufacturing organizations considering adopting (or expanding) mobile applications in 2015, there are some important things to consider that can have marked effects on an organization, from costs, to user experience, to security, and beyond. Below, we’ll highlight some of the major factors manufacturers would do well to keep their eye on.

1. Identify which mobile platform: iOS, Android, Windows or HTML5. Which platform you choose has important implications. The cost of developing functionality for each platform—or going for a browser-based approach with HTML5—has had the effect of slowing the delivery of some manufacturing-specific applications. Each operating environment differs in services and hardware functionality support, which has complicated support issues from the desktop/server environment into the mobile workspace and added another layer of complexity to product development.

On top of adding to what could be costly product delays into the market, this complexity could also result in unequal performance, limiting the native functionality depending on the device.

2. Determine the device: tablet, phablet or smartphone. From a more immediate and visual standpoint, there’s the consideration of physical screen space and user experience. Tablets/phablets obviously offer considerably more screen area than smartphones, and this factor has complicated the delivery of information to different mobile devices, as it often simply renders in a different manner based on size. While there are technologies that can alleviate some of these issues associated with desktop vs. tablet/phablet vs. phone displays, it still requires proper application design as well as forgoing some device-specific functionality available when designed on a per-device basis.

Many vendors will develop with one technology in mind, often by role or user, and the prevalence of a particular device within that space, with applications scaling upward or downward depending on size. When evaluating your mobile strategy, it's important to look at vendors that are developing applications based on what will likely fit your user needs across roles.

3. Address behavior, security and bring-your-own-device (BYOD) concerns. Wireless technologies inherently carry additional cybersecurity risks, but they also serve to amplify the importance and consequence of human behavior. The possibility of losing a device enters consideration, as does the fact that many users will not secure their devices—instant access being one of the key attractions of mobility.

The growing trend of BYOD adds a considerable layer of complexity with respect to the first point of platform choice, and when creating a multi-platform environment the cybersecurity threat grows even larger. With this consideration it becomes ever more critical that manufacturing/IT organizations ensure they have the appropriate mobile management policies and tools implemented to ensure that both wireless networks and connections to devices are secure, as well as the data contained within.

4. Consider industrially hardened devices. For some specific manufacturing/production environments, industrially hardened devices may be mandated for safety or security reasons. The cost, however, for these devices is significantly higher than for typical commercial devices, and may inhibit the widespread deployment of a mobile strategy. Even in instances where commercial-grade hardware is acceptable, the cost variations between devices better suited to the environment may be such that some BYOD users opt to forgo using their devices on the shop floor, limiting their effectiveness compared to colleagues willing to accept those risks.

When combined together, these form notable implications for end users. Without standardization toward a single device and platform, disparities become likely, and users could meet with performance and informational inconsistencies, limiting a mobile strategy’s efficacy. Though the incidence of industrially hardened device mandates is on the wane overall, if your industry is one that employs them, it's worth paying mind. After all, when all is said and done, if the mobile strategy isn’t being adopted—and done so with the confidence of the workforce—all the promise of mobile potential is radically reduced, if not inconsequential.

Though mobile will rightfully gain traction within manufacturing in 2015 and beyond, and some of these issues will dissipate with the evolution of technologies and standards, it’s still important to take a long and deep view at how mobile is likely to benefit your organization today as well as five years from now and build your strategy from there. A lack of full consideration of mobile strategy implications can be immediately costly, with greater operational and financial repercussions down the line.

>>Greg Goodwin, [email protected], is a research associate for LNS Research.

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