Digital Insights: The iPad Hits the Plant Floor

Companies like Pfizer have reduced time and increased efficiency by putting Apple's most recent showstopper, the iPad, to use in manufacturing.

By Michele V. Wagner, Senior Digital Editor

Anyone with an iPad just looks cool. Cool, probably only because they can surf the internet, watch movies on a decent-sized screen or play their beloved Angry Birds, virtually anywhere.

Although the iPad is loved by consumers far and wide, does its compact size and mobile functionality have a place in manufacturing? Apparently yes. And it is larger companies like Pfizer who are reaping the efficiency and cost rewards of Apple’s latest showstopper.

Whereas workers were once constrained to expensive, heavy, ruggedized PCs and/or stationary computer docking stations, the iPad allows for real-time alerts and traceable real-time performance indicators on a remote, compact, wireless device that still totes a high-resolution screen.

Experts say that while there are still clear limitations as a consumer device, IT companies and even major manufacturing vendors like SAP, Rockwell Automation and AspenTech have begun developing potential apps for warehouse management and process optimization.

Pfizer is embracing the tablet technology not only in its manufacturing plants but also in labs. Eric Cordi, an associate research fellow at Pfizer, told ComputerWorld that many pilot projects are underway at the pharma giant to help facilitate collaboration among scientists and deliver critical data closer to the plant floor.

Pfizer is utilizing AspenTech’s Aspen Properties Mobile App to help provide information on particular chemicals and technical brochures to scientists in certain areas of the plant floor and eliminate the need for paper handbooks or desktop computer resources.

But the iPad in its current form has many technological roadblocks for unique system programming and language translations and is not equipped to handle extremely harsh conditions and exposure to dirt, water and chemicals, which makes it hard to replace all existing soft and hardware and rely solely on tablet-based communications. At Pfizer, iPads remain in adjacent offices or just within reach of the plant floor.

However, at companies like MBX Systems, a manufacturer of hardware appliances and embedded systems, the iPad has replaced most Windows Mobile devices and barcode scanners altogether. The ROI has proven well-worth the transition based on orders made and defects found. Since the tablets have been incorporated onto the warehouse floor, workers have increased productivity by 14% and reduced defects by 20%, the manufacturer claims.

While the iPad still has room to evolve before it can become a fixture on the plant floor, its use in major manufacturing settings since its release in 2010 has proven that it will be a usefull tool for streamlining processes, system integration and communication. Apparently, the plant floor can be cool, too.

Are you using the iPad in your daily operations? Tell us about it:

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