First it won accolades as the next killer consumer device. Then it slipped into the backpacks and briefcases of white-collar information workers, and in some cases it's becoming a corporate-sanctioned alternative to the laptop.
Now the Apple iPad -- and, to a lesser extent, emerging competitors in the burgeoning tablet market -- are starting to pop up on the plant floor and in distribution centers and warehouses, promising to wring efficiencies and cost savings out of industrial operations by offering mobility and real-time data visibility to workers in manufacturing.
"When Apple created the iPad, the [manufacturing] industry had a sort of wake-up call ... that mobility is not only relevant for people outside the company, but also for those inside the company who have information needs and are not tied to their desk, but are tied to their asset," says Pierfrancesco Manenti, a manufacturing analyst at IDC Insights.
"With a relatively small investment, companies can re-create the whole information-on-the-fly scenario that was nearly impossible before unless they made enormous investments in PCs, cable networks and ruggedized PCs."
Specifically, workers strolling the plant floor while armed with a tablet device can, for example, readily track key performance indicators, get real-time alerts on potential equipment failures, tap into corporate data and even control machines remotely.
Featuring wireless capabilities and spacious, high-resolution screens, these units are well equipped to deliver visual or even animated work instructions to an operator of a specific machine, and could even update those instructions in real time if there were changes.
Thanks to higher-end capabilities like onboard video and voice and geo-reference information, a tablet could steer a worker to an area where there's a problem on a production line or in a warehouse. The worker could then use the tablet to record a video of the problem and send the video to the corporate office for more effective troubleshooting.
A toe in the water...
All good stuff, but to be clear: The iPad-led tablet invasion into operations is just getting started. Many experts say there are limitations to what is essentially still a consumer device. For example, there are questions about the durability of tablets in harsh environments, not to mention concerns about security and gaps in functionality, particularly when it comes to working with bar codes and scanners, a cornerstone of warehouse operations.
Still, just as the iPad is coming into office suites in the hands of people who love using it in their personal lives, that same "consumerization of IT" trend is prompting manufacturing and IT execs to consider tablets as a economical and accessible replacements for expensive ruggedized PCs or hard-to-use Windows-based dedicated mobile devices.
Sensing an opportunity around tablets and mobility, major vendors of manufacturing, warehousing and logistics software are busy working with key customers to pilot experimental apps and to explore how to best leverage the technology.
SAP, for example, is in the process of looking at its product line and creating a road map for potential apps, including ones for manufacturing, says Frank Schuler, vice president solution management for manufacturing at SAP. Other major vendors, including Red Prairie, which offers warehouse management and logistics software, AspenTech, a provider of process manufacturing optimization software, and Rockwell Automation, are also actively developing and testing apps that will have a home on the iPad and other mobile devices.
As in other markets where users and vendors are exploring the possibilities of mobile computing, the challenge for manufacturing software vendors is to develop apps that take full advantage of tablets' unique user interfaces while still meeting customers' business requirements.
"The newer devices open up totally new ways of people accessing information and navigating through the app in a graphical way," says Schuler. "The navigation paradigm lends itself to a more casual user than the typical user interaction."
Cruising the warehouse
The quest for more mobility on the plant floor is hardly new. Windows-based mobile devices have been available for years, and many of them are "ruggedized" to survive the harsher environments of factories and warehouses. But the general consensus is that they are limited in functionality and saddled with screens too small to be useful.
Ruggedized PCs have been another option, but they are expensive (typically around $5,000) and don't untether users from the need to be at a specific location to get information feeds or to input data on the fly. Ruggedized laptops somewhat solve the mobility problem, but they're still much heavier and more expensive than their consumer cousins.
MBX Systems, a manufacturer of hardware appliances and embedded systems, had traditionally used Motorola Windows Mobile devices and bar-code scanners in its warehouse to keep track of inventory and to pick orders, but the devices never lived up to their promise, according to Justin Formella, CIO of the Wauconda, Ill.-based company.
The screens were tiny, the devices were slow and there was no room for a keyboard. Some of the mobile units required a stylus for input, but those would often get lost, so operators used real pens on the screen, which destroyed them. "These devices were marketed as ruggedized and industrial, but they didn't hold up well," Formella says.
As for newer Windows-based mobile devices, MBX looked but was still not impressed. "We did evaluate the newer generation of devices, but to be honest, most of the drawbacks still weren't addressed," Formella says.
After considering a number of options, Formella turned to Apple iPod Touches. When the iPad was introduced, he felt he finally had a viable solution.
"For years, it has felt like we've had our hands tied with the poor performance of various Windows Mobile-based touch devices," he explains. "With most of our [custom-built] enterprise software running as a Web application, the iPad has become the perfect match for us as a low-cost and high-performance mobility solution."
Along with Bluetooth bar-code scanners, iPads, enclosed in industrialized casing made by OtterBox, are mounted via specialty hardware from Ram Mounts onto carts that cruise the MBX warehouse (see photo below).
Since they first started using the tablets last November -- 10 iPads were deployed initially -- workers in the MBX warehouse can pick, on average, 14% more orders per month while reducing picking defects by 20%.
In the factory, employees no longer have to carry clipboards and use pen and paper to record notes about exceptions or write descriptions of quality problems -- and later re-enter the information on a PC (which they sometimes never got around to doing at all, Formella admits). "Now they can do everything they'd do on their desk on the iPad while picking -- they can even check email," he says.
Plans call for pushing instructions on how to assemble the hardware appliances and embedded systems MBX manufactures out to the iPads. Navigating the instructions will be easier on the iPad's touchscreen; currently, operators have to sit in front of a monitor and manually scroll through assembly details.
MBX's iPad rollout hasn't been without its share of challenges, Formella admits. Security wasn't an issue, because everything is done via the Web-based system, which is protected with standard SSL encryption and passwords; no data is stored on the iPads themselves.
Still, the group had to jury-rig the tablet to accommodate the Bluetooth bar-code reader, and Formella had to take some steps to lock down the devices to prevent operators from installing personal apps -- including the staff favorite, Angry Birds. Physical theft wasn't as much of a concern, Formella says, because the devices are attached to the carts, making them pretty difficult to take off with.
While he's happy with the Apple products, Formella emphasizes that it's the tablet form factor, rather than the brand, that works for MBX. "We did evaluate other tablets, but at the time there wasn't anything competitive [to the iPad]. If we were to do the project today, I think we may have chosen one of the Android-based tablets, mostly because they don't seem to have the same issues and workarounds associated with making the Bluetooth scanner work," Formella says.
iPad, meet forklift
Markley Enterprises, a small manufacturer of point-of-purchase displays, was so sold on the idea of using iPads in the warehouse that the company modified its browser-based warehouse management system from Red Prairie to work on the real estate of the iPad.
Like MBX, Elkhart, Ind.-based Markley has progressed from Windows Mobile devices to iPod Touches to the iPad and is currently using four iPads and eight iPod Touches. The iPads are mounted on forklifts, eliminating the need for workers to walk back and forth to computer terminals to retrieve instructions on managing inventory or picking orders.
At the same time that it deployed the iPads, Markley also eliminated a batch process and reworked a system to be able to combine orders from the same location. Those changes, combined with the iPad rollout, mean workers are now able to pick multiple jobs simultaneously, resulting in a reduction in travel time within the warehouse, says Tim Markley, president of the company. And with the iPads affixed to the forklifts, there is little or no chance that they'll be dropped or damaged, mitigating concerns about durability.
"We're a small company, and our resources are limited. This is something we did that didn't cost a lot, and we're finding big results," says Markley, who estimates the total cost of the project -- including the purchase price of the hardware, programming costs and site-license fees -- to be in the tens of thousands of dollars.
We're a small company, and our resources are limited. [Deploying iPads] is something we did that didn't cost a lot, and we're finding big results.
Tim Markley, President, Markley Enterprises
Using the iPad and a wireless warehouse management system (WMS), Markley estimates the time employees spend tracking inventory has been shaved by about 30%. The iPad has also opened up new possibilities around data capture. Using the iForm data-capture app purchased from the Apple App Store, Markley's IT group designed a quality-control process whereby workers collect data about the physical status of pending jobs, using video and voice to annotate observations and problems.
The iPad text data is fed wirelessly into the WMS, where it can be analyzed for trends and where workers can request help solving problems. "Mobile devices are key to the whole thing," Markley says. "We've tried in the past to collect data with forms, but it just wasn't reliable and it took too much time."
iPads in the Pfizer lab
Pfizer has a number of pilot projects underway to see how the iPad and possibly other tablets can facilitate collaboration among scientists and deliver critical data closer to the plant floor, according to Eric Cordi, an associate research fellow at the New York-based pharmaceutical giant.
Working with iPhones, iPod Touches and the iPad, Pfizer is using AspenTech's new Aspen Properties Mobile App to serve up information on the properties of particular chemicals and technical literature to chemists and scientists in certain areas of the plant; traditionally, this type of material had only been accessible off the plant floor in handbooks or online technical resources.
While the devices in their current form are not allowed on the plant floor because of the risk of fire and other safety reasons, they are within reach just off the floor in adjacent offices and labs.
"Process development scientists work in many different environments, and fluid access to information is an important part of the creative process," Cordi says. Without leaving the plant floor, they can use mobile applications to quickly access useful data to influence the design of the next experiment, he adds.
While the business case for mobile devices in operations like those at Pfizer has never been stronger, it's still early to call the iPad a sure thing for manufacturing, says Kenneth Brant, an manufacturing industry analyst at Gartner.
For the harshest environments where there are copious amounts of dirt and water, the iPad and other new tablets remain untested, he points out. "There still a question around the form factor in terms of these consumer devices really making it in those environments," he says.
Such caveats notwithstanding, there is still great interest in the agility that the new generation of tablets brings to the plant floor, whether the ultimate device ends up being the iPad, a competing tablet, or a new, revamped, ruggedized mobile device.
"There is a great business case for substituting tablets in place of PCs on the plant floor" says IDC's Manenti. "When you want something that's compact and portable and there's no need for a keyboard, it's exactly what's needed."
Stackpole, a frequent Computerworld contributor, has reported on business and technology for more than 20 years.