In many manufacturing businesses, keeping staff in touch with developments while they’re on the move can make a major difference to their efficiency and effectiveness – which ultimately effects company profitability and customer service. And that’s not just true of sales staff, nor only mobile operators, or for that matter, people at all. Staying plugged in while on the move is the issue, and improved IT is now making it easier and more feasible. Ford’s Kentucky Truck Plant (KTP), currently manufacturing trucks and SUVs (sport utility vehicles), in Louisville, North America, for example, is home to one of the world’s largest quality control monitoring systems: it’s based on networking giant Cisco’s wireless Aironet 2200 DS (direct sequence spread spectrum) technology. The system provides wireless support to users of portable transaction computers (PTCs) and rugged portable computers throughout the manufacturing operation, and the company now says it intends to roll out wireless LANs across all its 200 manufacturing plants and distribution centres world-wide. On the Louisville production line, quality control inspectors note defects on touch-screen hand-helds, while workers further down electronically check off defects as they’re corrected. As a result, identification of recurring quality problems now takes place in real-time instead of days later – resulting in higher productivity, cost savings on rework and better product quality. “If the production lines had had to be cabled for a new product or series, then it just wouldn’t be a practical proposition,” says Cisco’s Jeff Willis. “A wireless network gives Ford the flexibility it needs for its manufacturing operation.” And in fact, this system has now been expanded to include materials tracking and inventory management, supporting more than 450 portable computers using wireless adapters and covering 4 million square feet within the production facility as well as extensive outdoor vehicle storage areas. So it works, and the benefits are clear: sales staff can take orders working on the customer’s site; service engineers can receive assignments, check spares availability and update customer records without delay; and systems can be designed that automatically alert managers of production and equipment problems. So what should companies be looking for in mobile communications technology? Mobile computing really embraces all applications where the computer that people actually use has no physical connection to the application with which they are working. So it includes everything from barcode readers to notebook computers used by salesmen and service engineers. And it also includes newer devices such as WAP mobile phones, and PDAs (personal digital assistants). They all use some sort of wireless networking to connect to the corporate systems. But it’s not wise to make technology the basis of your decision to go mobile. It’s just business. “After a close look at the market, we’ve realised that 95% of people concentrate on technology, rather than on the value it adds to the business case,” says Mark Sampson, head of the Consultancy Centre for Mobile Business Management at IT integration company Gedas. “Buying technology is easy, but understanding how new technology can add increasing amounts of value to your business is more difficult.” Gedas uses a method of assessing the way an organisation uses its assets – people, vehicles, equipment, or even inventory in the warehouse waiting to be delivered – and looks at how this can be improved using tried and tested technology, which is often mobile. It looks at what the current market drivers are, and how asset optimisation can be improved, aiming both for reduced costs and competitive advantage. “An important concern should be how quickly new systems deliver value and how easy they are to implement,” continues Sampson. “There’s a huge advantage in looking at a new technology and deciding it’s not for you. Deciding not to waste money is a positive step. You want to be aiming for significant improvements which will put your company into an improved market position.” Looking at mobile computing from the wider business perspective, it is possible to see many opportunities for mobile computing. The most obvious are where mobility is essential for the worker, but up until now the computing might have been inconvenient, impractical or just ineffective – for example in sales and service. Disciplines like CRM (customer relationship management) demand good information flow between a central repository and the field operators. The sales force needs the latest product and stock information, and service engineers need customer equipment histories and the ability to document the work they have completed. “In the service field, technicians and engineers have always been mobile but they’ve lacked information,” says Hans Joerg Kuchler, service business manager for Swedish ERP (enterprise resource planning) software vendor IFS in Europe. “Now it’s possible to give them that information, either using WAP phones or other types of terminal. Mobile engineers get information when they need it and can report back easily. Service management is part of CRM. It doesn’t just involve sales but covers the whole lifecycle.” There is now a much improved communication channel – both from service provision to engineering and from engineering back to the company. Everyone has access to the same information, including information about customers and their service contracts, details about condition, historical information and future plans. One way of achieving this is with WAP (wireless application protocol) phones; another uses an IBM Workpad. “Future terminals will have bigger screens and better keyboards,” says Kuchler, “but today’s phones can carry service information, and really are useful. Wherever the technician goes, he’s always available. He can get new orders on the phone, check stock and report back to base. “The Workpad is used differently, as it’s syncrhonised with central systems over a normal telephone link. It has a bigger screen and can be used off-line anywhere, unlike mobile phones which, for example, can’t be used in hospitals. You get much more information and at end of a job you can write your report immediately, with times, expenses and so on. “We’ve concentrated on benefits rather than technology,” concludes Kuchler. “Service managers used to be missing this type of terminal. They had paper, but people don’t fill out forms, and managers end up with poor information on which to base decisions. Technicians in the field actually like using the new equipment, so together with being easier to use this means the quality of information being sent back is much higher.” “We’ve been looking at opportunities to lower costs and reduce complexity,” says Andrew Munday, head of solutions marketing for ERP colossus SAP UK. “For example, look at opportunities for a salesman. If it’s possible to configure products, check stock availability and pricing either in the car or actually with the client, that’s all going to have an impact on fulfilment. Especially if this can feed directly into the enterprise systems which drive information down the supply chain. Concentrate on business benefit and providing a better service by automating tasks like inventory management with bar-code scanning and RF tags. So when the lorry leaves the factory, your ERP system knows precisely what’s on board.” There are two main technology streams that have been developing, and in the very near future they will undoubtedly converge. One of these is Wireless LAN – Ethernet without wires, copper or optical fibre. Wireless LAN is built around a tried and trusted networking method and is just an add-on to existing factory or building networks. It gives a lot more freedom to operators and is much more flexible than cable-based systems, having significantly fewer physical components. “Wireless LAN is particularly applicable to manufacturing,” says Jeff Willis, director for manufacturing media and operations at Cisco UK. He explains: “It’s ideal for use in buildings, with a short range, relatively high speed, and high reliability. It’s licence free world-wide, which means you can deploy it pretty well anywhere you want. It gives 11Mbit maximum throughput over a range of about 100m, and uses smart technology, so as you move away from the transmitter, the speed steps down. Wireless networks are basically mini-cellphone networks, with transmitters put around the building to create overlapping cells. It is very good at handling roaming, and once the infrastructure is built, all the traffic is free, unlike on a commercial cellphone service where you pay for all your calls.” The other technology is WAP, using the GSM cellular telephone networks, which extends the reach of the Internet beyond terminals and browsers to the latest range of mobile phones. As there is reduced bandwidth for data on current phone networks, a shorthand form of HTML is used. Special gateways translate HTML travelling outwards towards the WAP device, with messages and commands returned being transformed into standard HTML for onward routing across the regular Internet. A relatively recent development, the current generation of WAP phones uses an exceptionally compact screen size. “Today’s WAP technology has developed around telephony but the industrial community wants to get the benefits it can deliver into manufacturing,” says Dick Caro, vice president of analyst ARC, who specialises in the communications area. “There are already some manufacturing applications, but I expect to see a great deal more in the future. What’s going to make a big difference is 3G (third-generation) wireless, where development of a high-capacity data network directly connected to the Internet is being led by Japanese companies, based on their own experience with a proprietary system.” Says Cisco’s Willis, “The future is going to be high speed and packet-based, as the wireless LAN and cellular network technologies converge. GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) is one method of transmitting data over cellular networks and there is already a 46kbit bandwidth service. Cellnet will take this up to 114kbit by the end of the year, which compares to 9.6kbit data capacity on current GSM-based networks.”
  • Factory control now by phone Schneider Electric’s ‘Transparent Factory’ concept makes it possible to step outside the factory yet still retain access to control systems with WAP phone access to its PLC-based systems. Control and monitoring of any process using one of Schneider’s Internet-enabled PLCs can be carried out over a digital cell-phone link, which means the engineer can be in the next room, the next town, or the next continent. “It means you can now get performance and diagnostic data using just a Web browser,” says Chris Holt, automation marketing manager at Schneider. “Instead of having to go to the SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) system, you dial into a WAP gateway which connects you to the web server in the PLC. Software in the Web gateway reads information from the PLC and passes it out to the WAP phone. “Similarly information can be sent from a phone to the PLC, all of this happening in real time. Wherever control systems are used, for example in building management, this principle can be applied. To turn off the lights or turn the heating down, here is open technology which will do that job. In the water industry it can be used by the engineering staff to monitor pump status, adjust settings and call out repair teams in the event of failure. The applications for this relatively simple technology are limitless.”