Mobility in Manufacturing – Technical Obstacles

February 4, 2019

Has the impact of mobility been felt within your company?  If you’re like most, you have some Wi-Fi in place and mobile phones picking up e-mail.  That certainly qualifies as using mobile technology.  Your company may have advanced further along the “mobile curve” and are deploying mobile apps.  In most cases, these apps are likely to be customer facing apps which support the sales and marketing efforts of the company.   These efforts are important and are hopefully providing measurable payback.  But has your company made any effort to deploy mobile apps beyond sales?  Specifically, has anything been done to apply mobility to manufacturing and operations?

For most companies, the answer is no.  The meaningful deployment of mobility to Operations is still relatively rare.  Annual industry surveys regularly show that mobility is viewed as one of the top technologies for companies to leverage.  But when it comes down to actually using it, back-end operations continue to be left behind.  Why has it been difficult for mobility in manufacturing to gain traction and widespread use?   It could be the classic case of money for projects supporting Sales taking precedence over projects for Operations.  But perhaps there’s a technical reason as well.

Technical obstacles for Mobile in Manufacturing (MIM):  One reality of manufacturing companies today compared with 20 years ago is the decline of IT staff.  Work that used to be done in-house is now often handed over to consultants.   The employed staff which remains typically supports the core ERP and business applications.  When considering mobile-centric projects, it’s common to outsource the creation of sales apps because these generally only lightly touch the internal business systems.  Much of the action happens in the “cloud” and doesn’t need direct internal support.

But when you start looking at ways to use mobile apps and devices for operational use, you need to be much more careful.   It’s now in your factory and much closer to what IT directly supports.  It can’t mess things up.  Feeding this anxiety is the fact that most companies don’t have employees with mobile app development skills.   For the IT manager, deciding on a development platform and partner now becomes a riskier bet.  Additionally, with new technology, more players exist making the selection process that much more challenging.  Even with a good platform choice, how soon can the IT staff learn to use the new tools?

Bottom line technical obstacles: higher risk partner choice, unfamiliarity with mobile technology, support concerns.

These obstacles can be overcome of course.

  1. Get a commitment from management and IT.  The company needs to support efforts to improve Operations using mobile apps.  Applying mobility to a factory has to be viewed as a foundational change which will take time and patience to implement.
  2. Select a good first project. It should be low risk to the business with high visibility.  It is even better if the implementation time is short and the cost low.  The benefits should be tangible and real but they don’t need to necessarily save hard dollars.
  3. Select a partner but limit your commitment. Use a mobile platform which obviously does the job, but which is designed to “lightly touch” your existing infrastructure.  You will want to avoid complex installations with many connections to your systems.  This way if you find you’ve made a poor choice you can move on with less pain.

Start small, but start.  Remember that you are introducing change.  In organizations there are many moving parts and change happens incrementally.  Your first project will be judged a success if for no other reason than if it stimulates ideas in the minds of employees for future applications of mobile within the factory.

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