Plants are not quite going mobile, but they are beginning to deploy some mobile technology on the plant floor. A recent study by VDC Research finds that mobile hardware in the manufacturing sector reached $1 billion in 2015. This hardware includes mobile devices used to support specific shop floor workflows and do not include the mobile devices used by manufacturing sales reps in the field.
While a billion dollars spent on mobile hardware may seem significant, it's a small chunk of the $200 billion spent on automation technology yearly. "Some analysts claim the manufacturing sector is entering a new era with Industry 4.0, and while a digital, connected factory would certainly represent a significant transition from the past, progress toward this pinnacle remains limited," David Krebs, executive vice president of VDC Research, told Design News. "Most manufacturers remain years away from this type of production environment given ample obstacles, slowly emerging technologies, and market trends."
Manufacturing Lags in Mobile Adoption
The manufacturing sector as a whole has been slow to adopt mobile, even while plant managers are showing interest in mobile technology. "The manufacturing sector still lags others in its adoption of mobile solutions, even while interest in mobile technology consistently rates high," said Krebs. "Yet when you look at actual IT budgets, mobile's share is disproportionately small."
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Krebs noted that mobile technology is not just a luxury on the shop floor. The technology stands a good chance paying for itself. "ROI is typically challenging to measure well. However, when considering the leading investment drivers -- improving worker productivity, reducing error, increasing asset uptime, improving operational visibility -- the results we have tracked have been overwhelmingly positive," said Krebs.
Barriers to Mobile
The VDC study offers a number of reasons that mobile technology is not getting a wide reception on the plant floor. "The barriers are varied and span budgetary constraints, security concerns, and a lack of IT resources," said Krebs. "In addition, many existing manufacturing environments are not conducive to wireless technologies and its infrastructure. Low penetration of WiFi in manufacturing environments and the difficulty of wirelessly interfacing with shop-floor equipment also represent gating issues."
Even with that resistance, the allure of mobile's ability to cut downtime is attractive. "Minimizing machine downtime is a huge priority with most plants running near capacity. The cost of downtime in heavy process industries can represent as much as 1% to 3% of revenues," said Krebs. "Mobile solutions have proven to be extremely effective at addressing these issues."
Given mobile technology's potential for cutting downtime, plant managers are beginning to look into the benefits of mobile technology. On another positive note, changes in the mobile market are beginning to knock down some of those traditional barriers. "Mobile solutions have matured significantly over the past couple of years and leading industrial automation vendors are now paying more than just lip service to mobile capabilities," said Krebs. "Mobile solutions today are much more intuitive and easy to use and the cost barriers -- while still high -- are coming down, especially as organizations better understand the tangible benefits of these solutions."
Torn About IoT and Torn About Mobile
The Internet of Things (IoT) has been widely discussed for its potential to revamp manufacturing into a super-efficient system. IoT vendors are painting pictures of significant gains, but manufacturers are traditionally conservative about adopting bleeding-edge technology. "While IoT -- as a broad theme -- has opened the door to discussions about connectivity and mobility on the shop floor, manufacturing technology decision makers are very pragmatic in what IoT is -- and more importantly -- is not," said Krebs. "Essentially, manufacturers want the benefits of IoT without the costs and complexities that these solutions so often entail."
Krebs also sees the lag in widespread adoption of mobile technology on the plant floor as part of a larger resistance to new plant investments. "Demand from customers for overall equipment effectiveness measures and high-quality products is a driving force for new technologies such as IoT, automation, and 3D printing, yet these technologies often require large monetary outlays, both in terms of acquisition costs and in supporting infrastructure costs. Plus, they often impose new security threats," said Krebs. "Faced with a weak global economy and a technical skills gap, few manufacturers have the financial and technical resources to make a quick transition to the emerging, digital factory."
Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 15 years, 12 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.