Manufacturing Goes Mobile

Mobile devices have changed the way people interact, view media and do business. Manufacturers are taking advantage of smartphones, tablets and other mobile technologies to streamline operations and boost productivity. But given the potential for security leaks, is mobility work the risk?

Smartphones and PDAs like the Blackberry and iPhone have made mobile connectivity a necessary component of conducting business in the 21st century. The recent wave of tablet computers has introduced more functionality to an already connected world, including manufacturing.

Sales in the the tablet computer industry reached 60 million units last year, up from 17 million units sold in 2010, with projections for as many as 320 million units to be sold in 2015, according to Gartner. Tablets such as the Apple iPad, the HP TouchPad, Samsung Galaxy, Motorola Xoom and others represent a broad tablet consumer market, while many more tablet computers (like the Motorola ET1 Enterprise tablet) are available for specialized, niche industry functions.

In its 2012 State of Mobility Survey, Symantec reported a global tipping point in mobile adoption, with 71 percent of enterprises considering custom mobile application releases and one in three in the process of releasing or having released a custom mobile application. Additionally, over half of all manufacturers are upping IT spending, Computer World reports. IT operational spending is up 4 percent in manufacturing this year, almost double the average increase of 2.2 percent for all industries.

However, a significant percentage of Symantec respondents admitted their business is behind the mobile curve, often due to security concerns.

Almost half of respondents declared mobility to be extremely challenging to adopt and 41 percent characterized mobile devices as one of their top three IT risks. Respondents cited mobile device cost and complexity reductions as among their top business priorities.

Are American manufacturers willing to tackle the IT security burden of mobile adoption in order to reap the benefits of a mobile operation?

The tablet PC has entered the manufacturing industry through two major channels: management and operations. These technologies allow factory managers to keep tabs on all assets, labor, inventory and processes at the swipe of a finger, while shop floor workers can streamline their day-to-day operations by tracking machinery and inventory at a ground-floor level.

Shop floor managers and employees use a variety of mobile devices and industry-specific apps to monitor factory productivity and efficiency, reference myriad production documents or contact offsite colleagues with questions. While the PC has enmeshed itself in factory environments, the tablet frees up workers to exercise greater independence and mobility.

A Motorola survey of the effects of mobile tech on manufacturing productivity found that "manufacturers with mobile applications saved a daily average of 42 minutes per employee," as reported by CIMx. Furthermore, approximately 70 percent of IT managers in manufacturing were attempting to introduce mobile and wireless applications into day-to-day operations to improve efficiency.

One of the most frequently cited benefits to mobility adoption is access to on-the-go asset and inventory tracking. As IndustryWeek explains, "mobility is a core lean enabler allowing manufacturers to extend mobile voice and data right to the point of activity - inside and outside the four walls."

When networked, mobile devices are connected to real-time inventory tracking, and on-the-floor updates can be regularly entered by multiple shop floor workers. These updates are available to everyone on the network. Sales can securely check inventory numbers, knowing that the data is monitored by a mobile-enabled worker who is on-site, greatly alleviating supply chain burdens.

Not only can mobile devices track inventory, they can also track processes and labor progress. As Motorola notes, "materials and orders are more easily located and... workers can focus on their assigned tasks rather than on searching for missing or misplaced orders" when managers have access to mobile devices. Mobile devices also enable "true" labor cost tracking, allowing managers to better utilize their workforce and gain better insight into competitive pricing.

However, change also poses risks. As manufacturers increasingly rely on mobile devices to improve productivity and efficiency, concerns about mobility are emerging. The Poneman Institute's Global Study on Mobility Risks found a majority (59 percent) of companies saw employees "circumvent or disengage security features" in their company-sponsored mobile devices, while 51 percent have experienced data loss due to improperly secured mobile data.

Symantec's mobility survey concludes that the benefits of mobility justify the cost and effort of implementing a cybersecurity policy: "Organizations that choose to embrace mobility without compromising on security are most likely to improve business processes and achieve productivity gains. To this end, organizations should consider developing a mobile strategy that defines the organization's mobile culture and aligns with their security risk tolerance."


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