Making smart connections in manufacturing: The return on mobility investment

The PwC report, ‘2017 Industrial Manufacturing Trends,’ highlights the need for the manufacturing sector to embrace connectivity in order to gain insights from operational data. The report states: “In a slow-growth environment, productivity gains are paramount, industrial manufacturers can best serve their customers and themselves by designing tools and equipment that improve the efficiency, costs, and performance of factories and other capital projects.”

PWC advises that industrial manufacturers need to mine operational data by investing in, “connectivity tools that provide insight into production levels, inventory and capacity availability, quality levels, and order status from all their suppliers.”

Manufacturing is ripe for mobilisation

The manufacturing sector was an early adopter of mobility, using specialised handheld devices to process data from barcodes, RFID and QR codes. Now forms and signatures captured on mobile devices can replace paper-based processes and enable employees to digitally capture information on-site, en route, and at the point of delivery.

Manufacturers are now discovering the advantages of connecting smartphones and tablets to data from multiple backend manufacturing systems and integrating the Internet of Things (IoT), to create new, smarter solutions that increase visibility, improve efficiency and deliver more actionable and timely insights to operational staff.

Return on mobile app investment in manufacturing

When it comes to applying mobile technology to improve efficiencies, reduce waste and boost the bottom line, manufacturing appears to lead other industries.

In October 2015 Red Hat commissioned Vanson Bourne to survey IT decision makers from 200 private sector organisations with at least 2,500 employees across the US and Western Europe. Respondents from manufacturers came out on top when asked whether they were seeing positive return on their mobile app investments: 92 per cent of respondents in the manufacturing sector reported that they were achieving positive ROI.

When compared to other sectors, the manufacturing sector’s mobile edge became even more apparent: 83 per cent of telecom sector respondents reported mobile app ROI, closely followed by 82 per cent in the construction sector; 76 per cent of retail respondents and 75 per cent of distribution and transport respondents. The business services sector respondents revealed that 71 per cent had achieved mobile app ROI, followed by 69 per cent of financial services respondents and 66 per cent of IT respondents. Of the chemicals and pharmaceuticals sector respondents 56 per cent reported that they had achieved positive ROI from their mobile apps.

Given these findings, it is worth examining some areas where manufacturing is well-suited to take advantage of enterprise mobility.

Shop floor management

Machine to machine (M2M) technologies based on wireless connectivity are a natural fit with the production environment. Data from supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and manufacturing execution systems (MES) can be made available as decision-ready information to managers and operational staff on the factory floor through mobile apps and dashboards, enabling proactive monitoring of equipment.

Supply chain and logistics

RFID technology is already driving logistical efficiencies in tagging stationary equipment, tracking shipments, material handling and warehouse management. The integration of mobile and IoT technologies can give manufacturers greater visibility into assets, inventory, personnel and business processes. GPS-enabled mobile apps offer features such as load scheduling, dynamic route tracking, container management and delivery management.

These capabilities enable manufacturers to consolidate and optimise routes to reduce costs, as well as calculate the date and time of arrival more reliably and quickly obtain proof of delivery, which makes for a cleaner customer experience.

Lean manufacturing

Lean manufacturing focuses on driving operational efficiency and agility by removing waste, improving flow, minimising standing inventory, responding to change, partnering with suppliers, or fostering a culture of continuous improvement.

Mobile apps connected to back-end manufacturing systems align with priorities for lean manufacturing by helping to reduce waste and maximise flow. For example, replacing paper-based processes with mobile forms can help to save time by capturing data at the point of use and sharing it with everyone involved in the process.

A European concrete manufacturer replaced its paper-based proof of delivery system with a smartphone app and was able to reduce the time taken to update its ERP system from 21 days to 15 seconds. The manufacturer saved time and reduced waste associated with lost, dirty or illegible delivery forms. In addition, it removed the cost of printing nine million pieces of carbonised paper each year. Drivers are able to use the app to ensure that they arrive at the right site entrance to avoid impacting the quality of the load. Invoicing has been made more efficient and managers also gained improved visibility of deliveries because data was captured correctly and automatically entered into the ERP system, empowering them to make decisions more quickly.

Using mobile to exploit untapped value of legacy manufacturing systems

By unlocking data stored in back-end systems and making it available to mobile apps in a more secure, reusable and user-friendly way, manufacturers can generate additional value from existing data assets.

A mobile-enabled approach opens up new ways of working, based on the features and functionality enabled by smart devices, mobile apps and cloud technologies.

Features such as cameras, location awareness, and push notifications can equip manufacturers, their suppliers, and customers with timely and actionable information.

Examples include:

  • Replacing paper-based processes with mobile apps that can update workflows and support QA/QC processes
  • Tracking field workforce location for safety and logistical efficiency
  • Pushing delivery status notifications to customers on their mobile devices
  • Capturing proof of delivery via signatures on the mobile device
  • Gathering time-stamped photographic evidence of product defects, using the smartphone camera
  • Using mobile apps to monitor data from temperature, pressure and humidity sensors
  • Equipping employees with real-time exception alerts on key performance indicators such as equipment outages, low stock and delayed deliveries

Why manufacturing is making the most of mobile

Having considered examples above, I expect to see the manufacturing sector to continue leading the field from a mobile ROI perspective. By enabling a two-way flow of information between back-end systems and mobile apps, manufacturers can unlock additional value, reduce waste, streamline workflows and provide stakeholders in the value chain with visibility of assets from the supply of raw material to the delivery of finished products. Mobile apps can further support lean manufacturing by increasing process efficiency and leveraging the smart mobile features that reduce manual and wasteful processes. 

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