Should you use standard mobile devices for mobile logistics?

Some companies are outfitting their vehicles with consumer-grade devices to keep in touch with drivers while they're on the road. Here's a look at that strategy's benefits and risks.

The rapid evolution of affordable connected devices in manufacturing, referred to as the Industrial Internet of Things, along with location-aware technologies such as GPS, mobile devices and increasingly sophisticated management and analytical software all contribute to a dramatic increase in visibility throughout the supply chain. Mobile logistics is a key component of this change.

Some transportation providers are moving to mobile logistics by equipping vehicles with devices mounted in vehicle cabs to enable close communications with drivers on the road. However, many rely on consumer-grade devices -- smartphones and tablets -- to put logistics information into the hands of drivers and field personnel. Yet the use of standard mobile devices for mobile logistics brings both benefits and challenges.

The availability of nearly universal and ever-improving cellular communications networks makes the connection part of the process fast, reliable and inexpensive. Likewise, the fact that there are only two technology environments -- iOS and Android -- with enough market share to be considered viable simplifies the programming and IT compatibility concerns and opens up the opportunities for finding readily available applications to handle the functions you want and need. Truth be told, many new mobile applications are Web-based, so any device with a browser might suffice.

The biggest concern with mobile access to company information is security. Whereas industrial applications and devices can be safeguarded with more stringent controls, using consumer-grade devices presents risks because consumer-oriented security is more dependent on human discipline, and companies are more reliant on employees to create strong passwords and change them regularly. They must also rely on employees to use appropriate antivirus and network security programs and safeguard the device itself.

While the commonality of phone and tablet operating systems is among the advantages of using off-the-shelf consumer devices, there is a liability in the lack of local control of the device environment. Both iOS and Android developers, as well as the cellular network and device providers, regularly maintain their software and are wont to distribute and install updates automatically and without notice. This could be a concern if the update makes your apps or programs malfunction. You don't have an opportunity to test your programs on the new operating system update before it is distributed to the users.

Although it can be less of a problem today than in the recent past, the small screen size of a smartphone and even the so-called phablets (larger phones that approach the size of small tablets) limits the amount of information that can be displayed legibly on the device. Applications and mobile-friendly Web formats must be simplified or data limited to be truly useful in these formats.

I probably don't even need to mention driver distraction as a disadvantage of mobile device usage for mobile logistics. Arguably, truck-mounted specialty devices can be just as distracting. Nevertheless, when adding yet another device or task to share the attention of an already fully occupied worker, something is bound to suffer.

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