Going mobile: the growth of mobile computing

There’s a growing buzz around mobile computing. But what does it offer the typical manufacturer? Malcolm Wheatley finds out.

A mobile computing application from specialist workforce management vendor Momote, is saving 10 employees at Ipswich-based maintenance company MC Contracts a total of 45 man-hours a week – an amount equivalent to an additional employee, for free.

“We’re clawing back around half an hour a day, per employee,” says Momote’s managing director, Graham Whistance. “Employees are no longer having to visit the office to pick up their daily job sheets, and then drop them off at the end of the day. What’s more, job sheets no longer have to be typed into the system – it’s all done in real time, by employees, as they complete the tasks they’ve been assigned.”

“Employees can genuinely be in touch with the back office while on the move – looking at past part histories, reviewing work instructions, and seeing a lot of customer-specific data that they couldn’t access before” – Rue Dilhe, Managing Director, Exel Computer Systems

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of travelling executives are making use of ExpenseMagic, a recently-launched low-cost application designed to help employees, and employers, track expenses, using mobile devices such as iPhones and iPads to photograph receipts and automatically apply any required currency conversions.

Welcome to the world of computing on the go. From iPads to iPhones, and netbooks to laptops, computing power on the move has never been more accessible. Special purpose devices, too, are augmenting tasks such as delivery confirmations, field service and in transit tracking.

But despite the growing prevalence of mobile devices, building the mobile manufacturing enterprise is still a work in progress. For while simple email access might be considered unremarkable, the fact remains that full workflow enabled ‘ERP on the move’ is still very much in the future. And if the software aspect of mobile computing is fluid, the technology of mobile platforms is no clearer. The most obviously pressing question: to what extent should software vendors, and manufacturers, support open source paradigms such as Android, or consumer-friendly iPhones or iPads?

To some, such questions are both mundane and irrelevant. In the shape of the familiar laptop computer, they point out, mobile computing has been around for years. If it had much more to offer manufacturers, goes their logic, it would already have been delivered. In short, manufacturers wanting mobile computing can already get it.

But tempting though such a viewpoint is, it ignores the changed paradigm posed by today’s mobile devices. Lugging a laptop around and booting it up is one thing; tucking a smartphone or iPad in your pocket quite another. And a growing number of manufacturers, it seems, have begun asking what they can do with a workforce that are already equipped with such devices – or could be, at a price tag far less than the cost of a corporate-grade laptop.

Remote access

“Over the last year or so, we’ve been picking up signs that manufacturers have been increasingly thinking about mobile applications,” says Adrian Simpson, chief technology officer for SAP UK. “It seems that businesses are increasingly reluctant to be tied to the desktop, and want to access more and more information while on the move.”

“Up until a couple of years ago, mobility for manufacturers evolved around the warehouse, and handled barcode devices,” affirms Sam Dharmasiri, sales director at Microsoft Dynamics manufacturing specialists eBECS. “But in the last year or so, we’ve been seeing a growing customer interest in mobile applications.”

But what sort of mobile applications? And to fulfill which specific business needs? Here, says Dharmasiri, the picture is less clear. “In effect, customers are saying to us: ‘What do you have?’, he explains. “But when we ask them what they want, there isn’t much clarity.”

To some, the answer lies not in some undiscovered killer application, but in doing a better job with the sort of mobile applications that have long been regarded as those most relevant for manufacturers. Rue Dilhe, managing director of ERP vendor Exel Computer Systems, for instance, points to field service and mobile Customer Relationship Management as opportunities. The trick, he says, is to offer genuine mobile functionality, and not gimmicks.

“In field service, for instance, we’ve got customers such as Bioquell and Haigh Engineering who can do a lot more than just look at maintenance jobs and input data,” he says. “They can genuinely be in touch with the back office while on the move – looking at past part histories, reviewing work instructions, and seeing a lot of customer-specific data that they couldn’t access before.”

Better still, as factory-floor production equipment becomes more intelligent, adding a mobile dimension to the maintenance function makes growing sense, says James Hannay, senior vice-president of international operations, Schad Automation. Look at some of Schad’s customers today, such as Dutch material handling expert Vanderlande Industries, which manages a number of automated conveyor lines at Munich airport under an outsourcing contract, and you’ll see a glimpse of the future for every manufacturer, he argues.

“SCADA consoles can create alarms when equipment fails, triggering specialist software to automatically allocate the failure to a specific engineer, contact the engineer on their mobile device, and supply them with vital information ahead of getting to the piece of equipment to diagnose the fault,” he says. “The provision of CCTV footage, SCADA readings and associated spare parts information ahead of reaching the machine in question can save vital time.”

“SCADA consoles can create alarms when equipment fails, trigger specialist software to automatically allocate the failure to a specific engineer, contact the engineer on their mobile device, and supply them with vital information” – James Hannay, Senior Vice-President, Schad Automation

Likewise, he adds, true mobile CRM involves having complete access to full customer account details, plus the ability to review order history, and raise quotations and new orders while on the move. Look at Exel’s customer base, insists Dilhe, and you’ll see genuine examples of mobile CRM in action. “It’s happening, and it’s for real,” he insists. But disentangling the reasons for manufacturers’ sudden new interest in mobile computing is a complex affair. However favourable an interpretation one puts on it, the proportion of the typical manufacturer’s employees that is represented by salespeople, factory-floor maintenance engineers, field service engineers, warehouse staff and so on remains low.

In short, talk to some of the IT industry’s more thoughtful observers, and what emerges is a sense that mobile computing probably falls into the ‘nice to have’ category, rather than comprising a ‘must have’ necessity.

“It’s certainly not a panacea,” says Gordon Fleming, chief marketing officer at ERP vendor QAD. “There are many things that don’t lend themselves to being deployed in a mobile manner. But equally, there are genuine opportunities where mobile can add value.”

And the impetus for manufacturers is probably a combination of leveraging an existing pool of mobile devices at minimal capital expense, coupled to a growing trend for remote working, a drive for efficiency, and the inexorably faster pace of business today.

“We certainly saw an increasing number of requests for applications to be moved to mobile formats when Blackberrys and iPhones became popular,” says Fleming. “But the starting point is very much driven by workflow applications, approval routings for purchase requests and that kind of thing. Get a notification in your e-mail, click on it, and you’re in the application in question.”

“Mobile certainly isn’t a panacea. There are many things that don’t lend themselves to being deployed in a mobile manner – but equally, there are genuine opportunities where mobile can add value” – Gordon Fleming, Chief Marketing Officer, QAD

Bring your own device

That said, the growing number of mobile platforms – Google’s Android, Apple’s iOS, Windows Mobile, Windows Phone, RIM’s Blackberry architecture and so forth – presents a challenge to both manufacturers and IT vendors. Making an application work sensibly on the screen of an iPad, for instance, is a very different proposition to making the same application work meaningfully on a Blackberry.

And manufacturers and application vendors probably have less freedom of choice than they imagine, with many employees already carrying a mobile device around with them as they work – their own smartphone or iPad – and not particularly wanting to carry another just for mobile access to the corporate back office.

Hence the growing ‘Bring Your Own Device’ (BYOD) phenomenon, in which IT managers are urged to forget thinking about supporting carefully-selected corporate laptops and mobile devices, and learn to leverage whatever devices employees have already chosen to use.

“The benefits of BYOD are very tangible,” says Phil Gillard, general manager of industrial automation provider SolutionsPT. “There’s a lower cost of implementation when rolling out mobile related technology, reduced training costs, because the user doesn’t have to ‘learn’ a new smartphone for work, and there’s no need to carry around two devices, or wait to be senior enough to be issued with a corporate phone.”

An IT manager’s nightmare? Especially from a security point of view? Not necessarily, reckons Martin Lunt, a principal adviser at KPMG CIO Advisory.

“While the reality of BYOD is still some way off the aspiration, the transition is likely to be gradual: checking corporate email first, and then access to the full corporate back office,” he says. “The trick is to build applications so that corporate data is always stored centrally, and not on the device. That way, there’s no security breach if the device is stolen.”

And cloud computing makes the move to mobile easier, even in a BYOD world, says Erik Johnson, vice-president of technical strategy at ERP vendor Epicor.

“Especially for smaller manufacturers wanting to access the corporate network without the hassle of a virtual private network (VPN) connection, the cloud is an enormous simplification,” he says. “Effectively, you publish to the cloud, and mobile devices access the data from there—and in the process, take some of the load of production databases.”

In short, while still a work in progress, building the mobile manufacturer is less of a leap than might be imagined. But will it deliver genuine value, or just be a gimmick? We’ll have to wait to find out.