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Custom Mobile Apps on the Factory Floor

OK, so the idea of an eye in every pocket may be a little creepy. But it’s a tool that’s becoming ever-more valuable for quick documentation of parts; barcode scans; and communication between shop floor and management. Soon, we’ll wonder how we got along without them.

In recent issues, this magazine has pointed out a number of mobile apps designed for machinists, fabricators, and other manufacturing purposes. All were available in the App Store for iPhone and iPad or in Google Play for Android devices. Many were free, with some costing a few dollars.

There’s no denying that specialized calculators and reference materials are tremendous timesavers. Still, they don’t tap the true potential of smartphones and
tablets like another category of mobile apps: custom enterprise applications.

At the company I work for, Zco Corporation in Nashua, New Hampshire, we develop all types of apps for customers. Some can be downloaded by anyone – games, productivity tools, information trackers, and the like. Many of our customers, however, require apps just for their businesses. Instead of (or in addition to) desktop software, they need mobile apps that connect to back-end systems, update databases in real time, and serve as control surfaces to computerized, electronic, and mechanical equipment.

Obviously, a single machinist isn’t going to commission a custom app to work with their particular apparatus. The company making the tool might, though; so might a company with a whole floor of tools, or the control software provider. There are many possibilities for integrating mobile technology into existing manufacturing workflows.

Information Access

General information like wire gauges, weld settings, and bolt sizes are perfect for a consumer app. But what about more specialized and even confidential data?

One of the most common requests we receive is for an information retrieval system that is private and secure. To do their jobs, employees need access to all sorts of information: company handbooks, customer contacts, job specifications, etc. Because every company’s exact needs are different, it’s often difficult to find an off-the-shelf software solution that truly works without extensive modification and ongoing licensing fees. Moreover, a patented part or process needs to be protected from unauthorized access. Commercial apps often move data through multiple cloud servers, and a single weak link could expose sensitive information.

A custom mobile app can reside on an employee’s smartphone. Many companies are embracing the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) model, allowing personally-owned devices to access confidential data – as long as that access is achieved through an encrypted, authenticated connection. This reduces the temptation for employees to actually store any company data on their phones for convenience’s sake.

Other companies desire more control, so they provide smartphones to workers and allow them to run specific apps.

Unique Hardware

Smartphones pack more varied technology into their compact forms than most desktop computers ever have. Just by utilizing the various sensors already built into the device, a mobile app can gather and disseminate all types of data.

– Camera. Of course the camera can take photos and video, useful for recording a new procedure or documenting a defect. It can also be used to read barcodes, automating data entry. Cameras can even recognize certain objects and display information about them on screen, using a technology called augmented reality. Viewing a label on Widget 47, for example, could bring up its dimensions, materials required, and production time.

– Accelerometer. Useful for measuring movement, the accelerometer in nearly all smartphones can also quantify things like vibration. In concert with the GPS sensor, the accelerometer can also determine position and distance.

– Orientation sensor. Its most basic purpose is switching the phone’s display between portrait (tall) and landscape (wide) modes. This sensor is very precise on multiple axes, though; in fact, some of the first iPhone apps were bubble levels.

– NFC. Short for Near Field Communication, NFC allows smartphones to quickly exchange data with just a tap. Specially tagged boxes, pallets, or other items can also hold a small amount of data or link to a database entry. Phones can even be programmed to launch a particular app or perform a prescripted task. Some of this hardware is used to great effect in the commercially available Asset Point infrastructure suite. The mobile portion of the software, developed by Zco, reads barcodes on asset tags to identify, record, and track inventory. The mobile app, AssetScan, runs on an iPad and can cache collected data or update a database over a wireless network in real time. Photos captured with the iPad’s camera further fill out the database to speed future identification.

 

Control Automation

Computer-controlled machining tools have enabled fast, precise manufacturing of both large and small quantities of parts. A mobile app can be developed to do essentially anything a desktop computer program does, with several advantages.

– Mobility. The obvious reason to use a mobile device is to not be constrained to a single physical location. A tool might lend itself to use from multiple positions depending on the job, but the desktop computer controlling it stays in the same place, leading to a lot of wasted time walking back and forth.

– Touch. Rather than awkwardly manipulate CAD models with a mouse, why not use a finger on a touchscreen? This much more intuitive interface removes a layer of abstraction from between the operator and the final product.

Space. Even laptops require a bulky desk for operation. Smartphones fit in a pocket and only need recharging once a day.

Of course, all communication from a mobile device to a machine tool would take place over a wireless network rather than a direct serial, USB, or other wired connection. That enables communication from anywhere within range of the wireless signal, which brings us to yet another possibility.

Simple, clear interfaces – in plain English – are an important asset for the small screen of mobile applications. A great design challenge is balancing readability with a minimum number of layers or screens.

Production Floor Management

Dealing with one machine is a handful. Managing every machine in the facility? A potential nightmare.

The folks tracking productivity have different needs than those operating one machine at a time. Each employee is probably interested in personal stats like widgets per hour and idle time, but management requires a more expansive picture. Who is assigned to which line? Which machines can be shut down for maintenance while still meeting production deadlines? How can resources be most efficiently allocated?

A connected mobile solution can combine control software, personnel management, job status, inventory, and a host of other functions into a single app. A manager can have access to that information – and the power to update it – whether in an office or walking the floor. Changes made to one cog in the company machine automatically affect others, allowing decision-makers to spend more time on business goals rather than logistics.

Business Intelligence

Away from the manufacturing floor – say, at home or on a trip – business intelligence functionality gives managers a high-level view of everything going on in
the company.

Many applications include some kind of dashboard, with key graphs and statistics displayed. With a custom mobile enterprise app, the exact information that’s needed can be pinpointed and organized. Because which stats are relevant can change over time, making the dashboard flexible is a key.

One of our clients, tomato paste maker Morning Star, requested a custom business intelligence solution for their unique management structure. Rather than a traditional hierarchy, Morning Star has every employee be a stakeholder and decision-maker, so the need for accurate and understandable data was essential. By using mobile devices in their solution, Morning Star democratized the flow of information so that all workers have access to what they need to know.

Mobile First

Many software developers are instituting a “mobile first” philosophy for future product releases. Quite simply, this means that when designing applications,
developers consider mobile devices in their interfaces first, and only then adapt functionality to the desktop. This method has become necessary as more people use smartphones as their primary computing device.

Just as industrial applications moved away from command lines on hazy green screens to graphical interfaces, now they’re moving away from bulky desktop machines to handheld mobile devices. How could your work be streamlined on a smartphone?