How Manufacturers Can Build a More Efficient Workflow (from a Mobility Perspective)

Even the most automated “smart factory” requires human involvement. So, let’s talk about the fundamental computing capabilities people need to work optimally within your processes.

A woman conducts a quality control check on the factory floor using a Zebra ET8x
by Aik Jin Tan
May 23, 2022

Around this time each year, technology leaders (ourselves included) start talking about “what’s next.” Tradeshow season is in full swing, fiscal year planning is getting finalized, and headlines are ripe with recommendations on what decision-makers should spend their money on to gain a competitive edge. 

Although there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to achieving Industry 4.0-level operational visibility and agility, I can tell you that automation alone won’t be enough to sustain operational continuity and quality control as production and fulfillment demands increase. We’re a long way from lights-out manufacturing, and human workers are still very much in control of both inbound and outbound operations, even when there are industrial robots working alongside them and real-time location systems surrounding them. 

Therefore, we must augment workers with technologies that help them see everything happening across the operation – and supply chain – so they can make the right decisions and provide effective guidance to others. We must also make it easier for people to report and resolve issues and collaborate with others as needed. Even if there’s only one worker managing inbound logistics, there are many others impacted by the actions that person takes (or fails to take). And every pass/fail call made by an outbound quality control inspector could impact millions of people who are already sensitive to – and increasingly aware of – quality control issues that could negatively affect their health and safety.

In recent studies, 43% of patients said they fear more illness and/or death could result from contaminated or tainted medications without supply chain improvements, and only two out of 10 consumers have complete confidence their food is safe to eat. To make matters worse, less than 40% of food and beverage industry decision-makers place complete trust in the industry to ensure food and beverage safety. Even the global automotive industry has been under growing scrutiny since it was revealed that vehicle recalls jumped nearly 82% from 2009-2019. 

For these reasons and more, it’s important you consider how your forward-thinking business decisions and technology investments are impacting your manufacturing capacity and quality rating today. 

  • What do manufacturing workers need to be more effective in their jobs right now?

  • What can be done to create more efficient workflows?

  • Are there ways to reduce the risk of mistakes or wrong decisions across the operations in which humans are still primarily responsible for executing?

I know my colleagues have suggested many ways you could augment workers and achieve your different business objectives via wearable solutions, autonomous mobile robots (AMR), fixed industrial scanners, radio frequency identification (RFID), and even machine vision. However, I want to throw another idea your way: rugged tablets. 

Though you may be used to giving these mobile computing devices to employees working in the yard, managing the loading dock, or making deliveries, they are quite useful for shop floor workers too. 

How to Know If You Should Be Including Rugged Tablets in Your Business Optimization Strategy

Think about your typical inventory flows and the issues that could be disruptive at each stage in the manufacturing and fulfillment processes. Then consider the ways rugged tablets could be used to help mitigate or respond to those issues and improve workflows:

1. Goods In - If component, raw material, and/or sub assembly booking in takes too much time because they’re using pen and paper, you’re going to experience manufacturing line downtime and yard congestion. If there are delivery manifest discrepancies, then it’s going to be difficult to reconcile delivered part counts. 

However, your receiving teams could use rugged tablets with integrated scan engines to log inbound items in a few seconds so those goods can get to their next destination – the line or storage – just in time. If they need to input additional data, such as an expiration date, they can use the on-screen touch keyboard. The benefit of this data capture technique is that supplier service-level agreement (SLA) reporting becomes more accurate. 

Plus, you’ll be able to pinpoint which deliveries are consistently late and leading to bottlenecks in your operations and receiving teams can receive pre-delivery notifications on their tablets that enable them to better plan deliveries and manage the yard and storage areas. The instant reporting and verification process also aids security and loss prevention, as well as other teams’ planning, as it provides visibility into the current status of raw materials, components and sub-assemblies. Did I mention the tablets could be used as a forklift-mounted solution or by those who walk and work?

2. Lineside Parts – If inventory isn’t managed properly, then it will be hard to execute just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing processes. There will be material shortages or picking delays that lead to work stoppages. But, if you were to mount rugged tablets on trolleys, autonomous mobile robots (AMR) or at RFID gates, then it’s easier to see what parts you have on hand lineside, what needs to be pulled from the warehouse in line with JIT principles, and what might need a total replenishment from suppliers. Plus, the larger screen makes it easier for workers to see what they need to collect for both standard production and customized orders. 

Just remember that as you start to incorporate more automation into your workflows, you’re going to need the fastest, most reliable wireless connectivity possible to ensure steady communications between these connected devices. It is recommended that you start mapping out your 5G and Wi-Fi 6/6E network migration strategy now and begin transitioning to tablets that will be able to connect to both current 4G/Wi-Fi networks and 5G/Wi-Fi 6 networks in the future.

3. Manufacturing and Assembly – As things become more automated, human machine interfaces (HMI) are becoming more important. With the bigger screen tablets in workers’ hands or mounted at production workstations, it’s easier to manage and troubleshoot processes. Workers sitting in a completely different part of the facility can have visibility into work in progress (WIP), material and resource consumption, and compliance with standard operating procedures. They can also control robotic arms and program each line so tablets can be used to scan in newly manufactured parts to provide an audit trail or monitor the goods flowing through an RFID gate at the end of the line.

4. Maintenance – There are a lot of machines, tools, and other assets to maintain – including spare parts. If there’s a delay in maintenance, lines could go down. Fortunately, with rugged tablets in hand, workers can retrieve asset records to see the maintenance history and schedule for each item, quickly locate the assets that need immediate intervention, and know where to retrieve the spare parts when repairs are needed. They can also pull up repair manuals and schematics on the large bright screen for step-by-step guidance or request remote expert support that’s facilitated via the tablet and a head-mounted display. (My colleague Graeme Simons spoke about this use case last year, as did David Beer in a separate post.)

Another benefit of using rugged tablets for maintenance actions is that workers can pull up a digital record of machine settings and performance in real time on a large screen, and they can immediately document maintenance and repair actions for future reference or to closeout reports.

5. Industrial Control - If it’s difficult for those in your manufacturing “control towers” to locate assets, capture or retrieve digital records of machine settings and performance, or remotely manage machines, then something is going to stall or fail in your processes. But marking of business-critical assets via RFID tags generates a digital voice and audit trail and can provide on-demand information to your quality, maintenance, and operations teams in mobile digital format – via their rugged tablets, of course. The tablets also provide an HMI to manage non-conformance anywhere onsite or remotely and enables them to monitor and manage the health of other Internet of Things (IoT) devices critical to your operation (i.e., handheld mobile computers, scanners, RFID readers, sensors, and more.)

6. Quality Control and Pre-Delivery Inspection – If it’s hard to isolate and bound quality non-conformance anywhere in your end-to-end process, then you’re going to lose time, money and possibly customers. So, it’s important to give your quality control teams rugged tablets that enable them to see what’s happening, understand why it’s happening, and have the means to do something about the issue. On a tablet, it’s easier to see both the detailed data points and images generated during inspections to identify issues and enable swift corrective actions. They can see the aggregate data or patterns generated by associated software in a very easy and visual way, making it possible to confirm who – or what machine – is responsible for particular errors, especially repetitive errors. From there, they can determine if worker retraining is needed or if retooling or machine recalibration is more appropriate. If it’s the latter, that can be done from the rugged tablet (if properly connected to the production control systems.)  

Additionally, the tablet can be used to take photos of items during primary or follow up quality inspections to document item status and help inform larger process and quality analyses. In all cases, the time to resolution can be significantly reduced, as workers have the visibility they need into quality outcomes and the mobility to go address them on the spot. They can take their tablet everywhere to retrieve, analyze and record findings.

7. Packaging – I don’t need to spell out what could happen if finished goods aren’t labeled and logged correctly. There are potential consequences from a customer satisfaction and legislative compliance perspective. Normally, we would recommend a fixed industrial scanner, machine vision camera or other similar solution for validations at this stage. However, if you want or need workers to be more mobile, you can give them rugged tablets to use during labeling inspections or packaged order processing. They can go from one packing station to the next to verify order and label accuracy. The tablets can also be used in conjunction with a bioptic scanner such as the Zebra MP7000 to show what items have been “checked out” of inventory and dropped into a box, essentially recording the packing action and fulfilling compliance requirements. The packer could even use the connected tablet to send a pre-delivery notification or generate an invoice once the order is ready to go. Of course, using a tablet to scan barcodes of both individual items and sealed parcels during the packing process can provide other stakeholders with real-time information about on-site and shipped goods so they can take related planning or replenishment actions as needed. 

8. Goods Out – If booking out takes too much time, then you may fail to make the delivery deadline and/or experience yard congestion. Of course, that’s not the only concern, as you need to ensure the right packages and pallets are making it to the right truck or container and that shipping updates are being reported in real time. The advantage of rugged tablets is that they can, once again, be used by forklift operators or those working on foot to reconcile orders, scan items, verify accuracy and get deliveries on their way. Rugged tablets also have the wireless technology needed to stay connected to business systems even when used outside the four walls. So, you can design a more efficient goods-out process that saves space (in terms of JIT storage requirements), saves time, and minimizes the risk of losses. 

In short, rugged tablets are a great way for workers to monitor, control, and report what’s happening in real time across all your processes, especially when they need to review detailed visualizations or data points to be effective and efficient. So, don’t assume that handheld mobile computers are the only option for those who walk and work, or that fixed vehicle computers are always best for forklifts. Likewise, consider which workers – and workflows – could benefit from more mobility or remote control capabilities. There are so many examples of how tablets have served as HMIs over the years, and even more examples of how tablets have benefitted manufacturers on a broader scale. Here are just a few:

- A leading German automotive manufacturer mounted fully rugged tablets onto cart-based workstations using vibration and shock-resistant mobile docking systems and then installed them directly on the assembly lines in its three largest factories in the world in the first phase of a multi-million-dollar Industry 4.0 initiative to create completely paperless factories. The rugged tablet-based solution was ultimately implemented in several other countries during the multi-year project, including the United States and South Africa. The flexibility provided by the rugged tablets, and the technology’s interoperability with a host of Industry 4.0 architectures, enabled them to evolve their business process design and maintain their competitive edge as customer demands rise. It also proved the business case for certain mobility frameworks within smart factory environments. 

For example, with just one rugged tablet, this manufacturer was able to replace more than 240 printed sheets of paper per cart, per day, with an automated, real-time flow of data throughout each plant. Production line workers are now able to instantly search and retrieve vehicle component manuals and assembly instructions using the rugged tablets. The resulting increase in productivity and factory uptime has enabled the customer to improve production output, and that translates directly into bottom line success. At the same time, the global auto leader is saving millions of dollars in paper, ink, printers and overall printer maintenance.

- Louis Widmer needed to ensure compliance with the EU Falsified Medicines Directive for prescription medicines at its Swiss manufacturing facility in Schlieren. So, it connected a Zebra tablet to the MP7000 in an interesting way. Read the full story.

- Angel Robotics used rugged tablets as HMI for its wearable robots. Though not a manufacturing example, it does show what’s possible from an HMI perspective. 

- Since manufacturers must manage warehouses, this Saddle Creek Logistics story might be of interest, too.

If you need to increase operational visibility, efficiency, accuracy or control in your production facilities – or even your warehouses – let’s find a time to talk. I’d like to understand more about the challenges you’re facing today, as well as the technology you are already using. From there, we can see if there are areas where rugged tablets could be deployed to help solve problems and meet your objectives. 

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Aik Jin Tan
Aik Jin, Tan is the Asia Pacific Vertical Solutions Marketing Lead for Zebra Technologies. He is an evangelist for Zebra’s solutions in the Manufacturing and Transport & Logistics sectors and sits in the committee of the Smart Automation Industry Group with Singapore Manufacturing Federation. Aik Jin has participated and spoken widely at numerous conferences and trade shows across Asia Pacific where he shares his views and cross-industry experiences in supply chains and operations management.
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