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Using Apple iPads in manufacturing has mixed results

Two companies tried using Apple iPads in the warehouse, and they each had different experiences: one good, one bad. Here is their story.

About a month after Apple iPads first hit the market in 2010, Justin Formella, CIO of MBX Systems, thought he had...

found a device to help improve productivity on the plant floor. And even though it was still in its early days, Formella was willing to give the iPad a chance.

MBX, a server appliance contract manufacturer based in Wauconda, Ill., had been using ruggedized Motorola Windows mobile devices and barcode scanners to track inventory and pick orders in the warehouses, but the devices weren't getting the job done, according to Formella.

The devices were slow, the screens were too small, their capabilities were limited and even though Motorola marketed them as rugged, they weren't as rugged as advertised. And they were incredibly costly, at $2,300 a unit.

Apple iPads showed promise, but didn't work out for this company

"We wanted to do more and performance was a problem [with the Motorola devices]. It was an old, dated solution," Formella said. "Then, we were looking at iPads that had way more functionality. It's fast, it's incredibly modern and they were $500 a unit. It was a lot more fragile, but they were so cheap that if one broke, we could put another in, put a case on it -- no big deal."

So, MBX mounted barcode scanners and Apple iPads -- enclosed in an industrial case made by Otter Products LLC -- onto picking carts in the warehouse. "Then, their picking tickets would just come up on the workers' screen, so they would know where they were to go to next, and they would go pick it -- it had all the information they needed," Formella said. "They would also carry the iPad with them in the ruggedized case when they had to pick the larger items." Workers could also enter information about any exceptions into the iPad, and it would then feed back into the company's Web-based ERP system, he added.

But the problem with the iPad was that it was too bleeding edge. Every year when Apple pushed out a new version of the mobile operating system, it would immediately cut support for the old one. And because Apple didn't -- and doesn't -- allow users to downgrade to previous versions, Formella said MBX was spending a lot more money constantly trying to keep the app up to date.

"In the early days, it was never clear what was changing from version to version, so there was tons of testing. We're on the beta, then the real live version comes out. You update some units, then you realize there were things that weren't even included because they don't include everything in the betas," he said. "They're trying to play that consumer cycle of 'surprise, here's this new, fancy thing,' but surprise, that new fancy thing that's out next Tuesday, doesn't really help the enterprise world."

Additionally, MBX relied heavily on Apple's Safari Web browser. "There were changes to Safari that made certain of our JavaScript applications behave differently," Formella said. "This was a regular occurrence where we would have to go back and do development, make updates and keep the app current. It was costly every year to have to go back and keep this app up to date with whatever changes were made."

MBX also ran into another issue when it had to buy new Apple iPads. For example, if MBX had standardized its ERP app on iOS 7 across the board, and then it brought a new warehouse online, it would have to buy new iPads, which, by that point, would probably be running iOS 8.

"And you can't downgrade them," Formella said. "Now, either we go back and do application development or we can't run the same application in the new warehouse. It was all those headaches, and it was just costing way more than it was worth. We needed something that had a more predictable, stable development platform for us to work on."

Consequently, Formella said MBX decided to abandon the program and it's in the process of phasing the iPads out in favor of a variety of devices, including Chromebooks and ruggedized devices running the Android mobile operating system.

MBX's experience isn't all that unusual, said Ryan Reith, analyst at IDC, based in Framingham, Mass. "We've seen a lot of feedback -- not only pertaining to Apple -- that these new devices are too sophisticated for the job that needs to be done," he said. "Not only haven't the applications worked the way [companies] had hoped they would, but in certain situations, it's almost added more complexity -- and that's not good for the job if it's less efficient than it was previously."

Marketing company says iPads meet its needs

Markley Enterprise Inc., a company that manufactures and distributes marketing support products, based in Elkhart, Ind., has been using Apple iPads in the warehouse, but with a different result.

Initially, though, the company was using Windows mobile devices. "We tried to integrate them for about a year, but they were lousy," said Tim Markley, the company's president. "They were hard to use. At that time, the screens were very small and they had a stylus. They just were not user friendly and they cost two to three times more than the iPad. There were some advantages because they were more rugged, but we're a graphics company and the Apple products were what we were using in general, anyway."

So, in 2011, Markley Enterprise introduced Apple iPads in its distribution facility. "And they worked out fine, because we have a cloud-based distribution system that is run through a browser; so, as long as you have an Internet connection, regardless of the platform, you can gain access to that system," Markley said.

After the initial excitement wore off of having devices and a system that worked, Markley learned a big lesson -- the iPad was not a rugged tablet. "I don't think I was as careful as I should have been," he said. "I didn't get cases and a few got dropped. But since then, we incorporate a case called Rokform that works well."

Not only does the Rokform case protect the iPads, it also has an attachment that fits on the back of the tablets, so they can be mounted on the carts that employees use to travel the warehouse to pick product, Markley added. Then, the employees can take their iPads off the carts, put them on their packaging benches and process the rest of their orders. When they finish processing the orders, the workers send them down the line to the FedEx station.

"So, we're using the iPad to do everything all the way up to the point when the package is ready to be processed to FedEx," he said. Currently, the company is using about six iPads and six iPad minis in its warehouse. The minis were phased in when the iPads had to be replaced and are now the preferred devices, Markley said.

The iPads combined with the company's warehouse management system have reduced the time employees spend tracking inventory by 30%, according to Markley. "There would be no way that we would want to give the iPad up, because we feel there are a lot of advantages to it and we continue to think that it's real essential for us to have if we're going to keep our productivity up."

Ruggedized iPads taking root in some warehouse environments

A lot of the ruggedized legacy devices used in manufacturing and distribution were Windows-based. And Panasonic and Fujitsu have continued to supply those devices with Windows 7 and will eventually get to Windows 10, Reith said. Apple and a few other OEMs on the Android side have done well in new business areas -- e.g., service workers who didn't have some sort of computer previously.

Rather, it's more the system integrators who are targeting the manufacturing and distribution market, Reith said. "There are a lot of system integrators that are selling iPads or Androids or Windows tablets -- but probably more iPads -- to these companies that need it [on the shop floor] and they're selling them with the full solution of a ruggedized case, multiple options on those cases, as well as some sort of service agreement," he said.

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