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Many businesses are increasingly turning to tablets, and although manufacturing companies are taking a more pragmatic approach than many, even they're getting in on the act.
Indeed, mobility in manufacturing is definitely on the upswing. "There has been much more activity in mobility in general, whether it's iPad-, iPhone- or Android-based in the manufacturing environment," said Simon Jacobson, a Gartner analyst who covers supply chains for manufacturers. In fact, he added, "If you're a vendor seeking to sell into any operational environment and you don't have a mobile capability, the odds you being considered strategic by your clients is pretty minimal."
Mobility in manufacturing takes different approaches
So how are manufacturers using tablets?
Companies are taking two different approaches to using tablets in manufacturing, Jacobson said. "One is using a tablet to portray basic KPIs, where the same widgets we put on dashboards on PCs are just delivered on a mobile device -- that's not necessarily new or innovative."
And the second approach?
"Because you can have more sensors, you can get into more location-based services -- so where you are in a factory can trigger alerts or guide a worker through processes that are also bi-directional," Jacobson explained. In addition, he noted, mobility is a key foundation for using production data to improve the flow information both inside and out the factory, ultimately helping a manufacturer "drive more productivity, reduce errors and increase capacity or utilization."
Mobility in manufacturing not limited to iPads
"If an organization is going to buy an employee a tablet instead a laptop," said Forrester analyst John Wargo, "they're probably going to buy an iPad."
This iPad bias currently dominates customer-facing jobs, but in manufacturing, Wargo said, there tends to be a bigger push toward device forms that include ruggedization, scanners and sensors, all which point toward Android-based devices.
Still, the key driver in manufacturing environments tends to be the applications.
Kawasaki turns to tablets for manufacturing efficiencies
For Kawasaki Motors Manufacturing Corp., USA (KMM), the decision to use iPads on the manufacturing floor came from a to replace its card-based Kanban system with a more efficient electronic method that could better manage its just-in-time parts system. KMM's consumer products division in Lincoln, Nebraska, manufactures all-terrain vehicles, utility vehicles and personal watercraft such as Kawasaki's popular Jet Ski line.
To build apps for the iPad, KMM created its own custom product using a mobile application development toolkit, LANSA's LongRange, which lets KMM integrate its iPad apps with its ERP system. The initial effort saved Kawasaki from using 4,500 Kanban cards per day, and ultimately led to $3,500 in operational savings per day and a quick ROI. But what about the iPads themselves? How have they handled the rigors four manufacturing lines?
"The iPads are holding up remarkably well," said Jay Kamradt, assistant manager information services for KMM. "We have only had one damaged in the three years we have had them on the production floor. Before sending them out on the floor, we do put a Ballistic Tough Jacket [protective case] on them."
Even though KMM has found success with iPads, the manufacturer is actively using -- and evaluating -- other mobile devices.
Jay KamradtKawasaki Motors Manufacturing
"If we would be starting out today, we would not have started with iOS," Kamradt said, noting that KMM is now using TC70 Android-based devices for its receiving areas. Why?
Kamradt cited three core reasons: "Battery life for the TC70 versus iPads is three times better and lasts for the entire workday; we are not pleased with the enterprise management solution for Apple and we looked to Android to ease the burden; and the TC70 has a two-way radio over Wi-Fi and does support VOIP."
But there is more to keeping up with choices for the use tablets in manufacturing. "Windows tablets are intriguing -- simply because you can write applications that can work on a Windows phone, tablet and PC at Windows 8.1 or newer," Kamradt said. "This creates opportunities to build applications once that can be used by multiple departments and users."
Software enables mobile hardware
"We started out designing mobile applications for our new mobile workers on the assembly lines for our eKanban solution. We knew that once those were on the floor the requests would flood in for mobile solutions," Kamradt said. That initial effort quickly led to providing quality assurance inspectors with iPads to provide access to information on the assembly lines and not just at their desks. KMM then created applications for production that eliminated the need to track data on spreadsheets manually, as well as using mobile apps for scanning parts deliveries.
"After three years, we have 55 iPads and over 70 TC70 devices being used in our manufacturing environment," Kamradt said, noting that having the ability to create custom apps with LANSA's mobile development tools has made the projects possible.
"Every project that we will be working on in the next five years in our manufacturing environment will require mobile solutions to make it possible and successful," he said.
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