It’s time manufacturing went mobile

These days it is difficult to remember life without mobile phones. In fact a whole generation of “digital natives” have grown up with mobile technology and expect to be able to use it for both personal and business purposes.

More recently, the introduction of smartphones such as the iPhone and tablet computers has made the tide of change unstoppable. In fact, analyst firm IDC predicts that 120 million more smartphones/tablets than PCs will have shipped worldwide in 2011.

Yet, while ignoring the benefits of these new devices in the general business world would be akin to committing professional hari-kari, until now many manufacturers have been cautious about exploring ways the technologies can help improve both productivity and collaboration. However, now new manufacturing-focused applications are springing up which could change this situation.

The Apple iOS and Android platforms have given developers such as Autodesk an opportunity to create applications that enable manufacturers to access secure, managed data whenever and wherever they are in the world. This means that they always have access to the latest and most up-to-date revisions of drawing, 3D digital prototypes and project documentation.

Engineers can view and interact with 3D data which holds important information used by the design engineer during the decision-making process. This may, for example, give the correct order to disassemble a piece of equipment or the correct torque to fasten a bolt. Information could also include important health and safety data to ensure an on-site engineer stays safe.

Already there is a trend developing. Just as an MP3 player becomes a reflection of our tastes in music, as we edit and update according to mood, so smartphones and other devices can hold all current information about a design or finished product and be constantly updated as models are revised or products develop a service history. Of course the big advantage here is that there is no longer a need to search through file upon file of paper-based information.

This is particularly useful when it comes to servicing and maintenance. Take a typical scenario; an engineer arrives on site to install some new kit – materials handling, for example. They find that since last time they were here, there have been further updates and modifications to the existing installation that have not been documented. The existing drawings and installation instructions are now out of date and could potentially hold up the new installation.

Paper-based documentation is still widely used by engineers for installation, service, assembly or disassembly of equipment. Yet, as soon as instructions are printed they are often out-of-date. Even electronic versions of paper-based documentation can prove inadequate. As they are often copied outside of the data management environment they may only represent a snapshot in time.

Version and revision control is used by many manufacturers to create an audit trail of changes to a design and to ensure that the latest revision of a drawing or model is the one being used for manufacture. But it should also be used to ensure on-site engineers also have the lasted “as maintained” documentation. Having an audit trail of when and why decisions were made also gives on-site engineers more than just the geometry of the design. The challenge is making sure that they have access to the secure, managed environment that stores the latest revision of the documents and – if they find an undocumented modification, how do they quickly and accurately update the documentation?

Apps such as Autodesk Inventor Publisher Mobile provide a rich, interactive environment on iOS or Android devices where engineers can interrogate the 3D model, digitally take it apart and put it back together and get all the extra information they need to know about the task and product they are working on. Those working in in 2D can take advantage of AutoCAD WS which gives engineers a real-time collaborative environment, again on iOS or Android devices. Here they can view the latest drawing data and even edit the drawing to add changes and updates that they have encountered when they get to site. This is real-time collaboration; when the update to the drawing is made on a mobile device, it is automatically updated on the workstation of the design engineer sat in the office, enabling faster decision making.

The full potential of being able to access 2D or 3D CAD on mobile devices is still only just being explored. For example manufacturers can eliminate the need for hefty and often indecipherable instruction manuals for customers. Instead they can access 3D content that demonstrates exactly how to assemble, disassemble or service the product.

Autodesk Inventor Publisher allows manufacturers to re-use 3D digital prototype data to create technical documentation that can be used in various formats for different audiences. For example, it can automatically produce MS Word documents that can be used for printed instructions or MS PowerPoint presentations for health and safety training. It also allows manufacturers to publish the data automatically on a website where customers can interact with the 3D data to see exactly how they should maintain their product. The model includes re-order codes and contact information.

Applications such as these are taking the mobile revolution to the next stage. Soon designers and engineers will be able to carry around dedicated smartphones or tables that act as an interactive , data-packed notebook on everything they need to know about a product or design. Who would have thought that a mobile phone could become so useful?