Opinion: Mobile Technology in Manufacturing: A Movable Feast

Opinion: Mobile Technology in Manufacturing: A Movable Feast

by Rob Dinsmore, Industrial IT Sales Manager at SolutionsPT

The financial downturn brought about many changes in the UK’s manufacturing industry, including a refocus on efficiencies, a requirement to capture and analyse more data than ever before and a shift in working habits. Manufacturers are under pressure to deliver higher rates of production but with the same, or even less, resource. These demands have seen manufacturers re-evaluate their current systems, looking for ways to deliver efficiencies.

Although widely adopted in mainstream IT, mobility has been slow to gain ground in manufacturing. However, under pressure to improve efficiency and reduce costs, more businesses are turning to mobile solutions - via smart mobile devices - to perform business critical tasks.

Most manufacturers are aware that mobile technology offers a chance to improve their operations. Making real-time data accessible to more people can help manufacturers significantly reduce their costs and make efficiency savings. Imagine the time saved by all key staff having continuous access to real-time data wherever they are in a facility, allowing them to make vital business decisions quickly and accurately.

Another benefit of implementing mobile technology comes within the production environment itself. Traditionally, factories make use of ‘fixed operator stations’, typically consisting of PCs which operators go to in order to administer the manufacturing process. The ability to make use of mobile devices removes the need for personnel to have to repeatedly check back to one position and can make a dramatic improvement to process workflows, improving the output of the facility.

This flexibility is also beneficial to manufacturers who have previously been constrained by the lay-out of their plants. Take, for example, a chemical company located in a tall, thin building, where access is a network of ladders and walkways. They were looking for ways to deliver time savings and improve operational efficiency across the plant but were hampered by having to use a solitary PC located on the ground floor. This required operators to constantly return to the fixed terminal, taking up to 15 minutes and adding unnecessary time to even simple tasks. By implementing plant-wide wireless connectivity, workers were able to receive information wherever they were in the factory. Localised Bluetooth sharing also allowed operators to receive specific information relevant to the area of the factory they were in.

But whilst the benefits of implementing mobile technology are obvious, what are the common challenges businesses face around mobility and what steps must manufacturers follow before taking the plunge?

Security concerns form the greatest barrier to implementing mobile technology in manufacturing settings and there are certainly several factors to consider. The major risk is perceived to be ‘Bring Your Own Device’ (BYOD) capabilities, with IT Managers regularly raising concerns around devices being brought into facilities and connecting to the network that may carry viruses or leave the network exposed to security attacks. One solution is to buy-in mobile devices that are then made accessible to operators as part of a shared pool, making it is easier to control how devices connect to the system whilst also managing the level of access granted to each user.

Rob Dinsmore of SolutionsPT

However, mobility is more than just devices. The wireless in the background plays a vital role in becoming a mobile-powered operation. A wireless connection is not guaranteed in the industrial world, a trend that can be attributed to wireless networks being traditionally less secure and the conservative approach to new technology which is often prevalent in the Industrial IT Sector. As technology has advanced though, wireless networks can now be created that are more secure than the wired alternatives. Big multinationals, such as Heineken and Proctor & Gamble, are investing millions of pounds in order to roll out secure wireless networks that will offer greater protection than ever before. Having a secure and fast wireless network can also speed up the overall manufacturing process by providing almost instantaneous availability of data and performance information.

Ultimately, many security issues also come down to the operator and it is difficult to legislate for user error. However, these risks can be negated. If a user has access to the wrong application or mistakenly enters commands that can start and stop machinery, the risks to human safety and the manufacturing process could be huge. Through the use of solutions such as ThinManager Relevance, ‘resolvers’ - usually QR codes on workstations or Bluetooth beacons and WiFi connections in specific locations - can be used to provide a robust way of ensuring a user has the right credentials to access applications and only does so in the right place and at the right time.

When looking to incorporate mobility, a business must determine how and where mobile solutions can bring most benefit to the business, as well as whether the business will benefit more from a standalone application or a company-wide mobility solution.

Making sure the right knowledge and experience exists within organisations can guarantee that mobility is implemented to work efficiently, delivering the support and services required. However, this does not have to mean employing a new workforce of IT specialists - the skills gap within the IT sector means that more companies are turning to managed services to support their IT systems. This means that a third party can be used to help your organisation to embrace mobility, allowing manufacturers to benefit from their expertise and knowledge, whilst providing the peace-of-mind that the solutions delivered are in line with the desired operating results.

Ensuring that factories are secure from cyber threats and operating efficiently should be high on any manufacturer's list of priorities. Mobility is revolutionising manufacturing and businesses are increasingly designing mobility into their strategies to deliver greater efficiency. However, it’s not as simple as applying the same devices used in commercial offices to the production environment. The potential cost-saving and operational benefits of mobile computing technology are exciting but manufacturers must ensure they are adopting the correct solutions to meet their specific needs and taking the necessary steps to ensure they are doing so safely and securely.