Getting the MOST out of the consumerisation of manufacturing IT

Smart devices are a consumer success story. Their portability and power are also helping to ‘smartify’ the manufacturing industry – and this is just the start, said Christoffer Malm, Head of Connectivity Room at SKF.

Smart devices such as iPhones and tablets have created a consumer revolution. No household, it seems, is without one. Smartphones double up as personal stereos and satnavs, while tablets are used as games consoles and portable movie screens. In business too, tablets are increasingly preferred to laptops, particularly for enhancing engagement during the sales process.

Manufacturers are harnessing the connectivity, portability and computing power of smart devices to ‘smartify’ the engineering world and create a revolution of their own.

SKF is at the forefront of this and has developed an infrastructure that will allow industry users – whether white or blue collar – to embed smart devices into their working practices. Whether for portable maintenance, personal instruction or simply banishing paper, smart devices are helping manufacturing companies boost their productivity.

The potential gains are enormous. For example, productivity gains 12% from engineering staff armed with tablets. It allows them to do their job more efficiently, while accessing and making sense of more information.

Mobile advantage
SKF has spent more than a year developing a Mobile Operator Support Tool (MOST), which visualises the factory production line and connects machine data in real time. MOST will transform the way that operators interact with machinery, by supplying them with the right information, at the right time and in the right place – via a customised mobile device such as a tablet or smartphone.

Overall, MOST will help operators overcome many of their everyday problems, leading to greater work satisfaction and greater empowerment.

The ultimate aim of MOST is to make it as easy as possible to do the right thing. As well as delivering process data direct to operators, it will include various instructions – how to re-set machines and equipment, preventative maintenance procedures, and much more. These will now be at the operator’s fingertips, rather than in a manual somewhere.

Even if the information is in another employee’s head, it can be accessed quickly: one feature of MOST is a communications tool that allows operators and managers to text one another in order to solve problems. This feature has proved extremely effective during factory trials in Gothenburg.

From a pure business perspective, getting this connectivity through smartphones and tablets will save enormous amounts of time: SKF has already rolled out more than 3,500 tablets to employees and customers: each user has saved around 12% of their time every week as a direct consequence.

One of the huge benefits of smart devices is their ability to simplify data by visualising it clearly. As well as giving instant comprehension of large data sets, it could be used to give simple instructions that guide operators through a particular process, and this has already been implemented in a number of SKF’s apps.

MOST can also identify the presence of humans in the factory. The heat treatment department of SKF’s Gothenburg factory is 8,500m2, which is covered by a handful of maintenance personnel. As well as pinpointing the closest operator to a particular machine to aid productivity, the smart device can act as a safety alarm. If a ‘Where are you?’ alert receives no reply, operators can quickly be tracked down – in case they have fainted, for example.

Plain sailing?
There are obvious advantages to using smart devices in engineering, but a note of caution should be sounded. As with any kind of new technology, there are hurdles to leap before it becomes fully accepted. 

Lots of data flows between these devices, which rely on WiFi or 3G. But this extra connectivity raises huge concerns about security. Adding more cloud services outside the firewall introduces a potential weak spot, and companies are keen to ensure their in-house data is not compromised.

These services will be accessed in a number of ways, such as http, https or through new standards. Password protection will be vital, but to make these services usable there needs to be a balance between tight security and ready access. If you build a fortress, nobody will use it; protect it with a single password, and the data could be at risk. In the end, it will be a careful balancing act between the two extremes.

Information overload?
They key to systems like MOST is making sense of data. Generating information is one thing; managing it is another. In order to take full advantage of this enormous new data set, it needs to be filtered and presented clearly. With top class hardware, smart devices, apps that gather and collect info, and dashboards, much of the focus will be on maintaining and ensuring the quality of data and working out how to make sense of it.

Data visualisation needs to be simplified, so the complex information can be instantly understood – and acted upon – by technicians and maintenance personnel. It needs to be a simple interface with powerful data analysis.

The goal is simple: to present the necessary information clearly, and in real time, allowing recipients of that data to act on it quickly.

Smart devices will increasingly become the window through which information is communicated. Today, it is done using off the shelf models like iPhones and iPads, augmented by rugged cases to make them IP68 compliant. In future, these will be tailored devices – thinner, more robust and with new features built in.

Smart devices have already proven themselves in the demanding consumer market. If the manufacturing industry were to embrace the technology with the same enthusiasm, just think where we could be in terms of productivity.