A Detroit automaker was struggling with a semi-manual, labor-intensive parts receiving process. Workers were required to manually enter parts into a spreadsheet at a stationary workstation, which stopped the receiving process dead in its tracks. In addition, managers often didn't have accurate part location data, and they couldn't make quick decisions for their just-in-time (JIT) inventory process. Thousands of parts were being received daily, and a better system was needed.
The solution they came up with was an iOS application on an iPod with online server upload and access. Changes to the app can now be made quickly to adjust for any new requirements. The sled/cover allows for a sleek user-friendly hand-scanning unit, and training new users is simple, because most workers are accustomed to using smartphones and iPods.
Once inbound parts are scanned, the application auto-fills the part number and quantity. Data is automatically uploaded to a secure web portal, where the information is shared in real-time across the plant. As soon as the data is shared, it's automatically cleared from the app, permitting a new part to be scanned. The risk of losing track of inventory has been eliminated. To further decrease risk of error, the app is programmed to be mostly hands-free. The JIT inventory process is now managed 24/7, because secure data is available online, giving managers the flexibility to see part inventory status on their phone or from their office.
Though apps are pervasive for entertainment and other consumer uses, adoption has been slower in factories, because there isn't a wide range of industrialized hardware for them. Today, more protective enclosures are coming into the market that can mitigate the risk of damage in an industrial environment. This makes iOS and Android applications viable. Their software is more advanced and flexible than software that might come loaded on typical industrial hardware. Another benefit of these enclosures is that they make the mobile units less attractive to thieves.
Apps can be a powerful tool to reduce process time, because mobile devices can go anywhere, and so many users already know how to use them. Unlike a stationary computer or a single-purpose scanning unit, an iPod or smartphone has the mobility and familiarity to have an immediate positive impact. Redundant processes can be quickly eliminated. Information can be widely disseminated in a secure manner, and decisions can be made quickly.
In addition to part tracking, mobile is a great fit for other factory floor uses, including:
- Performance management: Managers can stay on top of time-critical orders, resolve production problems, and drill down to key issues in real-time without returning to the production floor. Usually, this type of monitoring happens only through a VPN Internet connection. Now all they need is a phone or a secure WiFi connection.
- Machine monitoring: A manager can schedule production, download equipment health data, and even start and stop machinery with a phone app, stopping critical issues before they develop.
- Capacity planning: Syncing capacity plans and real-time inventory communication with suppliers helps to meet deadlines and reduce costs.
Greg Giles is the manufacturing execution systems director for RedViking. He leads the company's team of electrical and software engineers to design and execute manufacturing execution systems, including error proofing, tracking and traceability, part kitting and sequencing, and custom app and report design. He has a BS in electrical engineering from the University of Michigan.