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Rugged devices help make mobile ERP a reality

Lured by the promise of instant data visibility, manufacturers are using a variety of rugged devices, including customized consumer hardware, to access real-time ERP data on the fly.

The value proposition for mobile ERP is easy to grasp. Mobile apps promise to allow employees -- from factory floor operators to warehouse workers to field service technicians -- to see real-time data from their ERP system on a device that fits neatly in the palm of their hand.

Mobility enables proactivity -- for example, a mobile app can alert personnel right before the production line is about to run short of a supply that would imperil the timely shipment of a key order. The ability to head off a problem before it blows up is priceless.

The plant floor manager needs exception-based data so he can spring into action to avert disaster, according to Joel Schneider, president of Liberty Technology Advisors in Northbrook, Ill.

"He wants to know which orders are going to be late based on client, deadline and materials," Schneider said. "He wants the ability to walk around the plant and talk to people, determining which orders get priority so he can make adjustments on the fly." The mobile app then updates the core ERP system, either in real time or in batches at the end of the day.

The mobile hardware dilemma

However, hardware selection is a major hurdle facing manufacturers interested in implementing mobile ERP. Many organizations require rugged devices (like the boxy-looking devices delivery people use) due to harsh working environments with extremes in temperature or vibration. But increasingly, manufacturers will be able to use consumer-class devices (including tablets and smartphones), in a toughened-up form, even in the most demanding conditions.

Truly rugged devices can withstand almost anything thrown at them (including being thrown off a building). But there is a price to pay -- namely, costs running to several thousand dollars per unit. At those numbers, it is not surprising that only organizations that have a genuine need for indestructability will pay the price.

Many manufacturers can get by with ruggedized consumer devices, said Maribel Lopez, principal and founder of Lopez Research in San Francisco. "I can spend $4,000 for a rugged device or $700 for an iPad and another $500 on a case to make it rugged," she said.

Consumer devices will work in all but the most extreme environments and are much easier to cost-justify, Schneider echoed.

Mobile ERP beyond hardware

No matter which type of hardware organizations choose, Schneider added, there are three keys to successful mobile ERP:

1. First, it must be easy -- like one click -- to access needed data. Mobile ERP is not about making the entire suite of functionality available on a mobile device. That would be very difficult to pull off technically, and it's not necessary. Plus, no one will use an app that takes more than a few seconds to access key data. Getting this ease of use may require some in-house or custom development, as not all ERP vendors are ready for prime time when it comes to mobility, Schneider said.

2. To support usability, opt for a mobile ERP app that offers role-based information. So, plant floor managers can click one or two buttons to quickly get what they need, whereas business executives have the drill-down capability required to manage financial and broader business performance.

3. Whether using consumer or rugged devices, pay close attention to security protections. Now that organizations can choose to use consumer devices in harsh conditions, employees may also have the option of using their own personal devices, which introduces new risks. In that case, the full array of bring your own device issues (security, the need to support multiple platforms, maintenance) will come into play.

Follow SearchManufacturingERP on Twitter @ManufacturingTT.

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