During a recent webinar, I was asked what the appropriate size is for a mobile device to use on the factory floor. The answer, of course: “It depends.” Not helpful, but still true.
Afterwards, though, I thought further about the question and looked again at some questions we’d asked recently about mobility in a survey about the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). In the survey, we only asked about generic devices—tablets, phones and similar tools for interacting with manufacturing software systems and plant quality systems. The results so far (shown above) are encouraging; the deployment of mobile devices is becoming the norm. Apple is clearly leading the way and all major platforms are well represented.
Since most applications in this type of device use pure web-based interfaces, the manufacturer and operating system of devices are probably less important than the convenience. Convenience is often translated as “what I am used to,” but we should try to consider a number of important factors such as:
- What do I use the device for (data entry, looking at diagrams, work instructions, etc.)?
- Can I do my job when I have my device in hand, pocket or wherever?
- Who uses the device?
Generally speaking, the more generic devices tend to get used for a large number of different tasks, whereas wearable and small devices might be oriented toward a single task.
When we are considering the size of generic devices, there will always be compromises. System designers need to work with factory floor staff to learn what the real needs are, as opposed to the nice-to-have features that look great but add little to efficiency and quality. For example, in a complex assembly factory, such as aircraft assembly, workers move around a lot. They have to undertake extremely complex tasks under little supervision, and only with their tablet as a means of communication and the sole source of information. In this case, size will focus more on functionality than mobility.
A full-sized tablet (or even a 13-inch PC convertible into a tablet) is likely to be a suitable tool for our intrepid aircraft assemblers as they work all over the huge airframe. They will be able to read detailed engineering drawings, play 3D models to see how to assemble parts and, vitally, be able to record and sign off everything that needs doing. Access to design information, the ability to update the as-built record, and sign everything off are all achievable on a full-sized tablet. It is clear that trying to do all this on a phone or small tablet would prove frustrating at best, and dangerous if proper procedures could not be followed.
In many other less demanding cases, a full-sized tablet would be more of a hindrance than a help; and though we believe phone-sized devices would be very useful for simple data entry and signing off work, they would be much more limited for instructions and help. Manufacturers should look at midsize tablets (or really big phones) as a compromise between portability and convenience for many general-purpose tasks—the size will be fine and they still slip into the pocket of a pair of work trousers.
The scope for mobile devices goes far beyond the general-purpose devices running HTML5-capable web browsers. Size, function and complexity can all be addressed by wearables and special devices.
Technology on the factory floor is intended to help improve product quality, productivity and safety, among many other things. When new technology is introduced, there is often a first mover’s tendency to try to do everything possible with the new toys. Wearables and smart devices are an extreme example of potential playthings. However, we already see examples of smart glasses, wearable barcode scanners, and positioning devices using simple Bluetooth. These help to ease everyday tasks such as scanning when both hands are full and checking details of components; they can be of great help to supervisors and managers who want a different view on their mobile device depending on location. All of our kids are quite used to location-based services--let’s use them in factories too.
Get mobile going
Mobile device connectivity and security have to be planned in the context of a plant or enterprise system. Many manufacturers are starting to use their IIoT platforms to provide these vital services. However you do it, basic security—something that our surveys show to be less solid than one might hope in the factory environment—becomes absolutely critical when you go wireless and mobile. After security and connectivity come the first real steps. At LNS Research, we’ve encouraged people to take the first steps into IIoT. Since then, we have looked at many aspects of IIoT across multiple business processes.
As you can see from our survey numbers, many manufacturers are getting into mobile devices; now is the time to incorporate one or two smart mobile devices to enhance the user experience. Consider size, but remember that functionality and productivity improvement are the real measures of success. Mobile devices will drive improved business processes and more connectivity across the enterprise, and they might even help people be more productive on the shop floor.
The development of improved data connectivity and greater incidence of mobile displays is changing the visibility and type of data that manufacturers have at their disposal, as well as the performance metrics that are incorporated into programs.
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>>Andrew Hughes, firstname.lastname@example.org, is principal analyst at LNS Research, with a primary focus on research and analysis in the manufacturing operations management (MOM) practice. He has 30 years of experience in manufacturing IT, software research, sales and management across a broad spectrum of manufacturing industries.