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How mobile won the plant floor

Zebra's Jim Hilton talks about how mobility and production processes are redefining each other.

By Thomas Wilk, Editor in Chief

The Plant Services Disruptive Technology series continues this month with collection of five interviews on how mobile technologies are reshaping the way that maintenance and reliability teams are doing their jobs. Here, Jim Hilton, senior director and global manufacturing principal for Zebra Technologies, talks with Plant Services about how mobile won the plant floor. Links to all five interviews are collected on this page.

PS:  Where do you see mobile's influence for change as having been greatest to date?

JH:  The idea of mobility is redefining itself and it’s showing itself mostly in the production process. There was a day when you and I would walk down a production line, and we would see the PLCs doing their job, very stationary and very accurate to what it is that needed to be monitored, whether it’s fill rates in a beverage operation or something else in a discrete manufacturing operation.

But the entire monitoring process was very fixed – I'm either standing right there at the production line, right on that PLC, or I am back in the control room and I’m looking at a dashboard monitoring exactly the same thing off of the network. To describe the change, I’ve got to use a phrase that is I think it’s pretty widely used, and that's "distributed computing." The change is also taking the form of sensors so that data capture can be achieved in that production process no matter what form it needs to take to achieve that. The minute that visibility is available to the network, then my mobile operator, my line production manager, my shift supervisor, or the plant manager can essentially see that critical path, whatever it is. It really is as simple and yet as complex as, data capture is taking its own correct form in the production process.

PS: Do you get the feeling that plants are asking their workers to bring to their own devices, or is IT providing the mobile devices that are going to be used?

JH: I was on a tour about 4-5 months ago at an automotive operation, and  I saw a person using obviously what was a personal phone. My host basically said, "That's his device and he is talking about business, I hope." Right around the corner we saw someone that was obviously on a more rugged phone, but it was something that my host said was company-issued, and he was also using voice. Then later I observed more rugged forklift-mounted data-capture devices.

So, in this one operation I saw a personal phone, I saw a company issued phone, I saw two-way radio, and I saw data-capture devices. I think what we’re going to see over the next improvement inside the four walls is a convergence, where lower-cost voice and data devices will take the place of the personal smartphones and the other voice-only (devices). So, not only can I talk to you if I need to reach out and speak to you as a manager, but I can also push tasks, I can track your work, and everything in more of a unified communications device that does data, does voice, does job tracking, does all the parts that need to be accomplished.

PS: When it comes to mobile, where would you locate the tipping point for wider acceptance?

JH: The thing that I’ve always been taken by is that the field was the first to adopt, and I am going to say as old in many cases as 1986-87, so those adopters are now on their fourth- and fifth-generation technology. The warehouse was the second to adopt, and they in many cases could be on their third- or fourth-generation technology. And then you go into operations and you see that the plant floor is still manual, or the plant floor is just adopting their first generation of mobile technology.

I think that it’s a natural progression: If I’ve got to do continuous improvement in my operation, and I’ve squeezed out the ROI from outside in, I still have inside to do. However, it is more complex: there are more touch points around the plant floor to completely optimize the mobility environment. Often times it’s the inside looking at their own outside, saying we could improve our operations. Also, quite frankly, it is the evolution of technology itself to the point where to adopt some mobility doesn’t necessarily have to mean that you need to redo your enterprise system. You can adopt using cloud technology. You can try things and do pilots and proof-of-concepts without turning your operation upside down. 

Read more interviews from "Going mobile: Advice from the experts"

Free your data and uptime will follow
Fluke's John Neeley explains how mobile innovations are enabling reliability-centered maintenance.

Secure peer-to-peer data sharing on the plant floor
Rockwell Automation's Kyle Reissner introduces Project Stanton, which will turn mobile devices into smart nodes.

How mobile is disrupting field services, operations, and logistics
Honeywell's Rohit Robinson argues that the greatest risks related to mobile tech are not adopting it soon enough.

Mobility is a standing expectation in plants
Schneider Electric's Saadi Kermani says to get a mobile plan in place to help become more agile as a business.