Manufacturing AUTOMATION

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Remote control: Harnessing mobile apps


Manufacturers are harnessing mobile app technology to improve product functionality and customer service, increase sales revenue and boost productivity on the plant floor. For example, Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford Motor Company has launched the new mobile app Ford Developer Program. It provides software developers with the information and tools needed for the creation of a relevant, voice-activated setting inside the car. Ford is now the first automaker to offer an open developer program, which enables software developers to directly interface with the vehicle and create mobile apps that will enhance the driving experience.
And the demand for mobile apps is growing at meteor speed among consumers and in the workplace. Apple recently announced customers have downloaded more than 40 billion apps (excluding re-downloads and updates) with nearly 20 billion in 2012 alone. The App Store has more than 500 million active accounts and had a record-breaking December in 2012 with more than two billion downloads during the month. Based on current smart device popularity, Stamford, Conn.-based consulting firm Gartner Inc. also reports there’s an opportunity for mobile app stores to generate 310 billion downloads and US$74 billion in revenue by 2016.

Mobility in manufacturing
Sowri S. Krishnan, vice-president, mobility with New Jersey-headquartered IT and consulting firm Cognizant, isn’t surprised the use of mobile apps is skyrocketing, especially among Millennials who access the Web using mobile devices. He says by combining existing technologies with a deep understanding of their business, progressive manufacturers can create app “stores” with application capabilities that can be easily configured to match employee, business partner and customer roles. Krishnan, who is based in Chennai, India, further says the use of mobile apps is set to change manufacturing as we know it today.
“As both consumers and businesspeople, Millennials favour virtualized environments that allow them to communicate and collaborate anywhere and anytime. To fulfill this need, all businesses, especially manufacturers, must create enterprise-grade mobile apps that are simple and intuitive,” says Krishnan. “Mobile apps can increase workflow efficiency and productivity with approvals, submissions and analytics. Manufacturers can not only enact greater productivity, but also achieve better cash management.
“One such mobile app allows senior manufacturing managers to view sales of their top 50 customers. Another app provides a days-sales-outstanding (DSO) view of all customers, calculating the maximum discount a salesperson could offer to customers who exceed DSO limits. Mobility can be a key enabling technology for manufacturers that seek to advance information quality, reduce costs, increase revenues, as well as improve customer service and responsiveness.”
According to Krishnan, enterprise mobility in manufacturing helps both discrete and process manufacturers by creating new and better efficiencies in their organization, driving down people and material costs and increasing asset utilization. It reduces errors and provides accurate data. The end result is increased profitability, raised customer satisfaction and a strong competitive advantage. Krishnan says manufacturers have to apply the aspect of mobility to eliminate key waste areas within their environment, including over-production, waiting time, transportation, processing, unnecessary motion, defects and inventory.
“Mobile apps create disruptive business and operating models that drive non-linear growth. This is particularly true of companies in emerging markets, where marketing and selling through mobile devices can be faster and less expensive than creating a traditional retail and sales network,” says Krishnan. “The manufacturing industry is moving quickly to adopt mobility. A ‘one size fits all’ model, however, doesn’t apply to enterprise mobility. In terms of implementing mobile technology, it’s important for organizations to have a strategic vision and ensure they choose wisely.”

Real-time access
Diversified industrial manufacturer Eaton is successfully pushing ahead with mobile app technology. The company introduced the POWEREDGE mobile app that provides customers and channel partners with “real-time” access to its electrical catalogues, videos and training. POWEREDGE enables users to learn more about Eaton products, and to share that knowledge by emailing individual catalogue pages, entire volumes or videos directly from the mobile app itself. Users can also locate the closest channel partner to purchase Eaton’s electrical products.
The POWEREDGE mobile app, which can be downloaded at the App Store free of charge, was designed to take full advantage of Apple’s iOS platform. “As the importance of the digital landscape continues to grow, information has to be available on demand. Mobile apps are helping customers and channel partners alike get information when and where they need it,” says Zari Talebi, global branding and integrated communications at Eaton. “The POWEREDGE mobile app is designed to help customers find information on solutions that improve the reliability, efficiency and safety of the systems they manage.”
Software developer AutoLean offers the universal OEE Monitor app for Apple iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch systems to manufacturers, such as Pactiv, Beam Global and Reynolds Packaging Group. The mobile app is available for US$2.99 and allows users to collect and calculate overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) from anywhere in the plant facility. Users aren’t tied to a desktop computer or need to be online. OEE Monitor is suited for longer-term Kaizen tracking improvements. Future versions of OEE Monitor will allow a cloud component where various real-time users can share data and compare OEE graphs. AutoLean also offers free Quick Takt and Quick OEE mobile apps for existing dashboards and more fast-paced calculations.
AutoLean has its roots in Lean manufacturing and plans to have 12 Lean-specific mobile apps showcased in the App Store early this year. According to AutoLean director Jeff Jackson, one of the most powerful concepts of Kaizen is ensuring improvements are made quickly. As a result, having accessibility to tools and reports where change is being implemented is critical for manufacturers. To effectively support this, Jackson says it makes sense that some of these tools would come in the form of mobile apps.
“Mobile apps in the manufacturing environment are still in the infancy stage. It’s really exciting to discuss their potential. Companies are discovering that iPhones, iPads and similar devices are excellent for the manufacturing floor,” says Jackson. “In most cases, you can have a device online and engaged in the workspace for an entire day. This new level of mobility can really open the limits on production cell design and streamline flow within the process. Reducing the waste of movement will undoubtedly improve your cycle time.
“And it’s important to remember that Kaizen events are designed to drive out waste and process inefficiencies. Think about how your charts and reports could be eliminated and managed in the form of mobile apps. In terms of computing solutions for consumers and plant professionals, devices like iPads are quickly replacing desktops and laptops. Businesses of all kinds are naturally beginning to see how mobility greatly impacts employee engagement. It’s no exception when striving for continuous improvement in manufacturing, as you have to be ‘present’ where the process occurs in the plant.”

The future is now
According to Ralph Rio, research director with Dedham, Mass.-based ARC Advisory Group, manufacturers can make huge strides on the plant floor by going mobile, which leads to increased usage. “With a smart device, you’re able to improve information gathering and make more accurate, real-time decisions. Since lots of workers move about a plant while on the job, manufacturing is well suited for mobility,” says Rio. “However, it’s also well behind the curve. The most common mobile device is still a piece of paper. Many people have a smart phone or tablet, so, the mobile adoption rate is already high among consumers. In the future, we’ll see more manufacturers benefit from the technology.”

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Robert Robertson is a freelance writer based in Mississauga, Ont.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2013 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.