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How wearable and mobile technologies extend the benefits of embedded BI

As devices, networks, and connections improve, so will the value and practicality of embedded BI via wearable technology.

By Sheila Kennedy, contributing editor

Business intelligence (BI) and analytics originally catered to strategic decision makers. Today, advancements in mobile and wearable technologies, enterprise software, and communications are allowing BI to become embedded in the daily operations of all levels of an organization.

“For many years, the BI/analytics process had a very distinctive place within the decision support strategy, and that created a lot of limitations,” says Jorge Garcia, senior business intelligence analyst at Technology Evaluation Centers (TEC). “It was a separate step within the decision-making process, making it very difficult to spread adoption. It was also very centralized, limiting the ability to make it accessible and easy to use. Nowadays, because of the ability to embed analytics within different stages of the business, BI is no longer just a strategic tool for business leaders and executives; now you can use BI and analytics to make operating, tactical, and strategic decisions — not just long-term decisions, but short-term decisions as well.”

For example, buyers ordering parts can see a real-time embedded analysis of how the suppliers have performed in terms of quality, on-time shipments, and cost, and they can optimize their purchase decisions on the spot, directly leading to a better result or perhaps avoiding making mistakes.

The benefits of embedded BI are further extended when the information is accessible from mobile or wearable technologies. “Previously, a supervisor or worker would need to find a computer, log in, and navigate to the desired information. Now it is available at a touch on the cell phone that they carry anyway,” remarks Alex Ivkovic, systems administrator at CDF, a manufacturer of packaging, storage and shipping products.

Not all BI is embedded

Dispatching process comparison
  • Traditional BI: Each morning, technicians pick up a printed route sheet from the service center with a to-do list based on information available that time. As priorities change throughout the day, the route sheets are marked up or revised sheets are printed.
  • Embedded BI with mobile technology: Technicians refer to their mobile devices for real-time direction on where to go next, rather than referencing static paper instructions. Calls are optimized based on current GPS location, skills and qualifications needed, urgency of the call, contract service level, and expected transit time based on current traffic conditions. They are rearranged in the background as priorities change or traffic challenges arise.
  • Embedded BI with wearable technology: Smart watches can perform the same functions as a mobile device while leaving the technician’s hands free. Wearable devices or garments that sense the current weather conditions and technician’s health status can feed data in real time to the analytics engine, allowing severe storms to be avoided, the risks of dangerous environments to be monitored, and alerts to be sent if the technician falls ill or stops moving. Special glasses can display real-time analytics on the specific part or machine being serviced.

In the age of the Internet of Things, embedded BI helps to distill all of the information coming in all the time from every direction, and you decide what you need to act on right now in order to improve your business results.

“Embedded BI enables in-context analytics,” says Rick Veague, chief technology officer at IFS North America. “Whether you’re using traditional, transactional type applications or mobile apps, the objective is the same: real-time insight into what and why things are happening in order to improve reaction time and decision making, which leads to improved business results,” he explains.

“It’s different than traditional BI, which is almost always after-the-fact,” says Veague. “I want to see that something is happening right now while I can still affect the outcome. With embedded BI, you are monitoring and presenting information to the user in a much more real-time situation and in a much more natural setting, so they can react quickly and gain advantage.”

Embedding BI provides three key advantages, according to TEC’s Garcia:

  1. It boosts user adoption.
  2. It encourages the effectiveness of BI.
  3. It closes the gap between operations and analysis so that the time to decision is shorter.

“For me, the concept of embedded BI and analytics is two-pronged,” remarks Garcia. “First, you find a way to perform analytics directly on your enterprise software solution, and then you assimilate it within your business processes. When it is embedded, you can use that intelligence for many things.”
For instance, many manufacturers are using real-time performance analytics in their plants to analyze the status of each step of the manufacturing process and also the quality of manufacturing. They are using BI not only for strategy, but for daily operations.

Wearable technology’s role in embedded BI

With an embedded BI approach, you take a device, whether a wearable, mobile phone, or laptop, and say here’s what you need to know right now. “Wearables alert what is going on while it is going on, so you can intervene in the process if necessary to prevent bad things from happening and take advantage of good things that are happening while you can,” suggests IFS’s Veague.

“The most important advantage of wearables is that they improve the data-to-decision cycle,” says TEC’s Garcia. “I think they will become increasingly important within many companies as they make operations and analysis more efficient, the business cycle even shorter, and the effectiveness of information-to-action even greater. We’re talking about Google Glass eyewear, smart watches like Samsung Gear 2, gloves that measure specific information, and even shirts that monitor temperature and physiological conditions. Wearable technologies are the ultimate user interface, aside from mobile devices. It’s something that you already use, so they have a very low learning curve. Most of the time you won’t need training, or the training won’t be as specialized.”

Practical applications

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Smart watches can perform the same functions as mobile devices, while leaving the technician’s hands free.

Wearables, like mobile devices, enable alerts when parts are delivered, emergency work orders are created, or approvals are needed. Some devices support calls for emergencies, GPS for personnel tracking, mapping of distributed operations, Internet searches for diagrams or instructions, or the ability to take photographs of failed or failing assets.

“The app that is primarily used in our plant produces quick analytic reports,” says CDF’s Ivkovic. “In a technical sense, it allows us to display a formatted SQL query on the screen. In a practical sense, it means we can very simply answer almost any kind of question at a touch, if the information is in the system.”

Some examples include:

  • alarm list — a supervisor can see who is punched in, which is particularly useful in case of emergency
  • lot/batch number — enter a part number and it shows you the lot number, quantity, and locations
  • quantity in stock — enter a part number, and it gives you the total quantity in stock
  • production line quantity remaining —how many more do we need to run?
  • line status — what is each machine working on?

“When you start doing the math about the cost of missing service levels, the cost of missing contractual commitments, the cost of hiring and managing schedulers, and the cost of underutilizing your field technicians, the payback for embedded BI can be quite large in short order,” explains IFS’s Veague.
Operations and maintenance: In operations, the goal is to keep production moving and react to plant events. For instance, if an order has been blocked for meeting the credit limit and it needs approval before it can be released, the responsible person can say yes or no right then and there. Alerts are needed when a machine is down and production is interrupted so you can make a decision to reschedule or replan right away. “You don’t want to find out at the end of the shift that you didn’t build the number expected, and therefore you’re going to miss your own shipment,” says Veague.

Field service: Service technicians are mobile by nature. They may work in difficult or remotely located environments, sometimes disconnected from the network. For example, oil-and-gas personnel commonly work in harsh conditions performing mechanically focused tasks. They don’t want to make a lot of decisions; they prefer to be directed. They need tailored, optimized, easy-to-use information without a lot of extraneous details or options. That direction is best provided by wearable- or mobile-supported embedded BI.

Schedulers and dispatchers: For planners, schedulers and dispatchers, embedded BI helps to structure the day’s events and account for changes as they arise, such as higher priority calls, traffic problems that threaten service level agreements or commitment times, or a technician requiring medical attention. “Using high-value, high-capacity servers, it constantly and automatically optimizes the routes based on what’s going on at that moment and your business model — for example, whether costs or contract rates are more important,” says Veague. “Embedded BI allows dispatchers to handle a much larger number of technicians and calls and eventually deal with the exceptions instead of the routine.”

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Embedded BI helps to distill all of the information coming in all the time from every direction, so you can decide what you need to act on right now.

Warehouses and stockrooms: Previously, printed pick lists showed the inventory that needed to be picked during a day or shift, and personnel would comb the warehouse for all the items. Now, embedded BI, barcoding, and directed picking have transformed the process. Mobile devices tell the user where to go and what to pick based on whether a truck is full or almost full, or if a new hot order just came in. “The picking decisions are determined for you, which optimizes your bottom-line results,” explains Veague.

The technology also empowers groups that need occasional access to the warehouse. “Accounting or customer service sometimes needs to find parts,” says Ivkovic. “Previously they would need to interrupt the warehouse workers to get part locations. Now they can get the information on their phones, saving them time and not interrupting anyone else’s work. We did not do a time study but our supervisors report saving time on the order of a few hours per week, which I think is huge.”

Quality, safety, and compliance: Nonconforming and unsafe conditions must be alerted and reacted to in real time. If problem reporting is inconvenient, the concern may go unreported. If the lag time between reporting and service dispatch is lengthy, the severity of the condition could worsen. On the other hand, with embedded BI and a mobile app, any user can take a picture of an issue with a smart device, add a text message, and press a button. The condition will be recorded automatically, its severity is automatically assessed, and the right people will be dispatched via their mobile devices.

BI delivery considerations

The range of available wearable and mobile devices is growing, and choosing one requires an understanding of the needs of the end user and the limits of the device’s practicality. “Whether it’s a wearable state-of-the-art Android device, Google Glass, or an older cellular flip phone that gets text messages, they all deliver BI information to someone when and where they need it, but in very different ways, based on the capability and form factor of the device” explains IFS’s Veague.

“For certain employees, we actually issue iPods rather than iPads or iPhones,” says CDF’s Ivkovic. “It’s extremely powerful to be able to access this information on a $200 device with no monthly charge.”

Many factors should be weighed for device considerations.

  • If a user needs to make calls or expedite actions, a smartphone is most useful.
  • If a user needs alerts and is not required to enter a lot of data, a wearable device may be perfect.
  • If GPS mapping is needed, a larger screen is important.
  • If there is a requirement to do Internet searches, a device with a keyboard is most beneficial.
  • If there are areas with flammable objects or material, a laptop or smartphone is not suitable because it could generate sparks.
  • If an environment is particularly harsh, ruggedized devices are critical.
  • If a user is not always connected to the Internet, disconnected mode must be supported.
Sheila Kennedy is a professional freelance writer specializing in industrial and technical topics.Sheila Kennedy is a professional freelance writer specializing in industrial and technical topics. She established Additive Communications in 2003 to serve software, technology, and service providers in industries such as manufacturing and utilities, and became a contributing editor and Technology Toolbox columnist for Plant Services in 2004. Prior to Additive Communications, she had 11 years of experience implementing industrial information systems. Kennedy earned her B.S. at Purdue University and her MBA at the University of Phoenix. She can be reached at sheila@addcomm.com.

Security is another important consideration. “You must have a comprehensive view of security in order to extend and embrace these kinds of activities and devices,” says Veague. “You want to minimize the amount of data that is actually distributed to these endpoint devices and keep as much of it on your servers and in your protected databases as you can. One approach is to leverage cloud technology, where a middle router tier sits between all the mobile devices and a secure back-office implementation.”

Organizations must also be attentive to conformance with OSHA and other regulations.

Real-time apps and mobile and wearable technologies help to recognize those risks earlier and bring the organization back to compliance faster, with a documented audit trail. “We are working on rolling out several applications, such as one that will allow us to report quality incidents or accidents,” says Ivkovic. “At CDF Corporation, I believe the future for embedded BI is bright.”

Conclusion

As devices, networks, and connections improve, so will the value and practicality of embedded BI via wearable technology. “Wearable technology and BI will tighten their relationship over time,” predicts TEC’s Garcia. “I think it’s unavoidable because wearable technologies will enable us to collect information and analyze it in real time. We are still in the early cycle of adoption, but technology cycles are brief now. I think it will come in a medium-term future.”

IFS’s Veague agrees. “We will continue to see a proliferation of devices meeting more and more niche markets,” he says. “Samsung wearables, Google glasses, and neural implants — which have got to be next — they all bring compromises but they also bring new opportunities. Those that add value will survive and thrive, and those that are a fashion statement will get set aside for the toys that they are.”