How to improve manufacturing performance using mobile

MANUFACTURING Execution System (MES) technology has evolved at an extremely rapid pace over the past 20 years, becoming a prominent part of how companies perform everyday business tasks.

The challenge for many companies is finding the right way to use mobile devices and applications in manufacturing environments. 

Mobile applications enable users to control thermostat settings at home or set home DVRs to record remotely. Does this mean that manufacturers should adopt this technology to control a reactor agitator speed in a chemical plant?

Many would argue that this is not the right way to apply mobile technology at this time, but that does not mean that mobile applications cannot be leveraged to provide benefits to manufacturing companies.

A logical manufacturing application for mobile technology is improving access to critical process and business data to improve response time and enable better decision-making. 

Plant MES systems collect and store vital process information that is used by many job functions across a manufacturing organisation, making the MES systems a natural foundation on which to build meaningful mobile applications.

The need for mobile

Lean staffing, driven by the competitive nature of industry, means that employees and contractors often have responsibilities for numerous production units or sites, not only the one at which they are located. 

To monitor a site remotely often requires an engineer to log in via a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or some other protocol to access the plant MES system in order to monitor performance, troubleshoot issues and perform other critical job functions. 

Technology logistics can make this time consuming and may result in delays in identification of issues and more importantly implementation of corrective actions, possibly creating safety risks.

Many managers today are required to travel across multiple sites and regions. These managers may be called upon to make critical business and manufacturing decisions while 'on the road'.

Most often they must do so without firsthand access to key production information and metrics, without any data at all, from second hand information, or with outdated or stale data. 

Alternately, the manager may postpone decisions altogether until data is accessible and a full assessment of the situation can be made. Either way, the decision is neither as timely nor as informed as it could be for the optimal business results.

Improving the accessibility of data is an essential business need, not only to maximise financial returns, but also to mitigate safety risks. With MES mobile applications, data is made available anywhere, anytime regardless of physical location, providing real-time insight into operational and business performance. 

Implementation requirements

· Leverage existing infrastructure
The implementation of an MES mobile application will help drive success within the enterprise. One of the first requirements is to leverage existing infrastructure and tools. In general, while there are usually changes that need to be made to the underlying IT infrastructure to accommodate a mobile installation, these are relatively modest and can be easily implemented by the IT department. The total costs of a mobile installation are usually minor when compared to the total installed instrumentation costs of any modern process plant.

· Security
Communication security is also a critical concern that must be addressed. A system that allows users to take advantage of existing industry standard security technologies and protocols will be easier to implement and maintain.

· Information by role
The mobile solution should also provide the ability to establish user privileges by roles, thereby limiting what data is available to what role. Because many different operators throughout the enterprise access MES systems to perform their particular job functions, the IT administrator should have a flexible interface for assigning access rights based on roles.

· Meaningful data
As an extension of this, the operator should have the ability to configure settings to make the information they receive more meaningful to them. If a production engineer is running a test, he might want to monitor alarms that he normally would not include in his regular performance management activities. He needs the ability to quickly access and enable these alarms to his mobile device. A shift supervisor needs to have the ability to configure his alerts so that event notifications are inactive during his week off.

· Only the information you need
Another implementation consideration is the structure and hierarchy of information. A process engineer who covers four sites within a region, each with three production units, wants to be able to quickly find information parsed by site and then by production unit. The flow of the menu structure in the mobile application is essential to enable ease of accessibility.

· Optimal visualisation
Flexible visualisation is another key requirement. A maintenance technician is probably more interested in individual tag trends whereas the plant manager probably wants to look at summary KPIs. To maximise the application's value, the visualisation capabilities must accommodate a variety of views such as tag trends, KPIs, data value fields, and event notifications.

Performance management benefits

Performance management involves using analysis and visualisation tools to convert raw process data into meaningful and actionable information. Placing information in the proper context and delivering it in the right format on a real-time basis moves decision making from reactive to proactive

Mobile applications are a good platform to enhance information access, driving increased employee efficiencies by delivering real-time data access anywhere, anytime.

MES mobile applications improve data accessibility, resulting in manufacturing advantages:
1. Faster troubleshooting and acceleration of corrective action 
2. More timely and better informed decisions 
3. Early identification and proactive management of production issues 

All of these advantages support crucial manufacturing benefits such as improving asset utilisation, reducing uncertainty and increasing profitability.

Deliver results

Mobile application usage in manufacturing is expected to continue to increase. The upside benefits are tremendous and can help drive bottom line results.

In fact, the payback can be measured in months because the reality is that it only takes one or a two major plant incidents that were avoidable to pay for an entire MES mobile system.

Early adopters of these mobile applications will help identify new ways to leverage this technology and shape future direction of development efforts.

MES mobile applications provide users with production insight 24/7 – regardless of their physical location.

As a result, it is anticipated that mobile technology will become an essential part of manufacturing operations infrastructure in the future.

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