Industrial mobility: Information where needed

Industrial-strength mobility is happening with the manufacturing and IT workforce today. Embrace it, guide it, make it secure, or it may dictate how your business will change, suggested experts at a recent industry conference.


Mobile industrial workers can connect to automation or business systems with pre-approved devices and applications. Sanctioned by some organizations’ policies, a worker can BYOD (bring your own device) and gather a toolset of applications for the workplace, including, perhaps, some actually provided by the place of employment. Various mobility trends, options, and tips were explored at a Feb. 8 ARC Advisory Group conference panel on mobility solutions.

Integrating a mobile enterprise application platform can include a variety of applications, services, and devices at many levels, said Greg Gorbach, ARC Advisory Group vice president. Courtesy: ARC Advisory Group

Greg Gorbach, ARC vice president, noted:

- Mobility devices and applications are already here in transportation, mobile smartphones, tablets, mobile radios, and other devices (including vehicles), along with rugged, industrial counterparts. These are enabled by wireless local-area networks (LANs), external wireless broadband networks, mobile assets (forklifts, skids, and shipping containers), GPS, and various wireless networks.

- Employees have faster access and interaction with assets, applications and customers, hopefully in a secure way.

- Information is viewed or exchanged through specific applications on certain operating systems or in “containerized” web-based applications that are OS agnostic. Development and integration tools can augment and customize, and firewalls need to be considered.

- Mobility providers fall into three broad groups: industrial hardware and software, communication infrastructure, and mobile device providers.

- When planning for mobility, consider users’ needs and where in the organization mobility can make a big business impact quickly, the kinds of devices, and if plant infrastructure needs to expand to accommodate the interconnected wireless devices, mobile, and otherwise.

In an ARC Group study on wireless implementations, security was the leading concern among respondents, followed by cost and business justification, integration with existing networks, whether upgrades are needed (IT staff may not have bandwidth to deal with it), and solution types and availability. These issues, said Gorbach, are consistent with the introduction of new technology and are expected to diminish quickly, with experience.

Wireless mobility is changing why and how we do business, how we make things, and work processes, Gorbach said, and will make manufacturers more efficient and responsive. Implementations can help innovate and extend business, improve regulatory compliance and safety, and enhance real-time performance.

Glass fiber manufacturer

What’s Owens Corning (NYSE: OC) doing to prepare for a more mobile workforce? Jim Beilstein, director, manufacturing technology and global IT operations, Owens Corning, explained how mobile technologies can help make many of its 15,000 employees in 28 countries more productive manufacturers of pink glass fiber insulation, roofing, asphalt, and glass fiber reinforcements.

Owens Corning has a vision for greater workforce mobility, said Jim Beilstein, director, manufacturing technology and global IT operations, Owens Corning, in a Feb. 8, 2012, presentation. Courtesy: Owens Corning and ARC Advisory Group

“Enterprise mobility is a priority for us. Security, compliance, and finding the right mobile workforce applications are among key concerns,” Beilstein said. “We’re taking a very deliberate approach to ensure we have a community that will use the tools that we put out there.”

He’s looking at expanding the workplace environment for tablet and smartphone integration, noting the company is phasing out company-paid mobile devices as contracts expire. These are supplanted by employee-owned smartphones, today split nearly equally between Apple iPhones and those using Android OS. He’s also looking at secure wireless access to some company networks, with tunneling for guest access in some locations. Also, employees can access social networks, such as Twitter and Facebook, although, “I’m not sure what that’s getting us.”

Applications underway or under consideration include human-resource access via Apple iPad for performance review goal setting, sales and management analytics, and working with key suppliers. The IT department and various business segments are cooperating to ensure we’re working on mobile workforce implementations important for the business.

Key hurdles to a more mobile workforce include security and return on investment concerns, said Greg Gorbach, ARC Advisory Group vice president. Courtesy: ARC Advisory Group

Manufacturing interests include tablet-based tracking of key performance indicators (KPI), alerting operators and other key stakeholders, including the management team.

A mobile workforce pilot in China using tablet devices incorporates daily production KPIs and efficiency metrics to help production teams optimize plant performance.

In some respects Owens Corning might have an easier time with such introductions since engineering technology and IT have been combined in some fashion for 10 years, working on migrations to more industry standard, nonproprietary shop-floor technologies.

Smiling, Beilstein said he may be an engineering operations fox running an IT henhouse, since he’s a chemical engineer. “I ask interesting questions of IT members on our team, about speed and value of IT engineering in manufacturing.” Other questions have covered openness, security, standards, the IT footprint, and pathways between systems.

In a greenfield implementation at an Owens Corning composites plant in Yuhang, China, key considerations include prioritizing goals, return on investment, mobile application architecture, services, integration with the enterprise, multivendor development, and maintenance. Other topics of interest are infrastructure, security, mobile device management, multi-device environment, and strategy.

More than one third of employees have opted into BYOD for smartphones.

Pilot installations will hone strategies for wider rollout. Ultimately, a more wirelessly interconnected workforce, with appropriate architectures and applications, will reduce travel with mobile video conferencing, increase decision speed, lower cost, and resolve issues more quickly. Secure WiFi will give way to 3G and 4G usage, and applications increasingly will be platform agnostic, after a mixed Apple iOS and Android split beginning, Beilstein said.

Mobile IT services

An IT service provider’s employees sell mobile implementations, said Kent Sanders, senior architect, CSC, “so we need to eat our own dog food.” With mobile customer relationship management (CRM) and analytics among CSC offerings, Sanders said he’s been intensely interested in how the company’s 92,000 employees in 90 countries can use mobility internally and externally, to help its own clients with similar implementations.

To expand a mobile workforce, CSC recommends starting with a business focus; learning through pilots, doing, and implementation; then expanding as needed. Courtesy: CSC and ARC Advisory Group

Mobility can enable processes, making them better, incorporating analytics in various tiers and solutions, and getting the right information to the right people at the right time. As a large SAP customer, CSC is layering mobility on top of that.

“Our approach is to start with business goals in mind, learn through pilots, do the implementation, and expand and scale usage as needed,” Sanders said. Doing things in little chunks gathers useful information to get buy-in along the way.

After joining CSC, he purchased an Apple iPhone and connected it to the CSC e-mail system without authorization; CSC was an all BlackBerry shop and did not support iPhones at the time, he said.

Now experience is gained with BYOD; 95% of mobile devices purchased by individuals are used for work in some way, Sanders cited, with or without the company’s blessing.

Companies have the opportunity, Sanders said, to drive worker activity by scaling and making it easier and simpler to enhance employee productivity. Use mobile devices, attach them to business goals, and use them to be more productive. Mobile apps also can make it easier for customers to buy products.

“We focus on mobile analytics and reporting to make it easier for employees to do their work.”

For more on this topic, see related links. Part of this article is in the March print and digital edition of Control Engineering North America. 

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