You've seen them in planes, trains, and briefcases. Ask someone for a name and address, or whether they're free next Tuesday to "do lunch," and out comes the latest in whiz-bang electronics: personal digital assistants (PDAs), those consumer handheld computers that sell for $100 to $600. But then there are the industrially hardened versions that start at $1,800. No, these aren't hardened for domestic power users, but to go to work even in factories. In manufacturing, PDAs enable people to move about and do their job without having to return to a terminal to record data or do the hundreds of other tasks people normally perform away from their desk, every day.
"By extending the operating system from these Web-centric handheld technologies into the hub of your execution environment, all your information is now in context," says Randy Selesky, Manager Global Solutions Marketing for General Electric Co. (Charlottesville, VA). "That's quite different than conventional wireless devices, which were often just a dumb display in a fork truck for picking inventory." Unlike conventional PCs, people are not using their PDAs for applications involving continuous monitoring. The PDA screen size is just not conducive to long-term gazing. Instead, continues Selesky, most manufacturing-related PDA applications are designed for monitoring "by exception. You're giving people snippets of information, and you want the host computer to drive the exceptions to the device."
So, what can you do with a PDA beyond keeping track of phone numbers and doctor's appointments? Applications like these:
production scheduling. Can an order be completed on a certain day? Knowing whether production is capable-to-build is an invaluable bit of information for any supervisor on the shop floor, senior executive in the office, or sales person on the road. The mobile capability of the 4C Suite, an "always-on" scheduling system from nMetric, LLC (Costa Mesa, CA), lets users know exactly what's happening on the shop floor in terms of equipment, material, and labor resources—and time. Using any wireless, Windows CE-based PDA, you fire up Windows Internet Explorer, enter the URL for the 4C application, and then enter your user ID. The resulting menu display gives you a variety of tasks to choose from. In the "capable-to-build" screen, for example, you can enter a part number, the quantity of parts you want, and the day you want it. (Not sure of the part number? Enter the first few digits; the PDA will search for appropriate matches.) The PDA will send your information to the host computer, which is running the 4C scheduling algorithms on live data from production. 4C replies with start and completion dates, or with the quantity of parts that can be produced by your preferred date—based on real-time production constraints. "You have real-time access to the scheduling engine just as if you were sitting at your desk," says Clayton Monkus, nMetric's vp-Product Management. "The PDA helps extend the ability of a company to anticipate what's going to happen in the plant—in time to respond in terms of technical, financial, operational, or business strategies."
Maintenance management organizations latched onto PDAs almost immediately to open, read, and close work order (WO) assignments; to respond to emergency maintenance requests quickly; to capture labor, part, and other WO data; to validate and review equipment and equipment history; and to book inventory. Datastream 7i, the maintenance management system from Datastream Systems, Inc. (Greenville, SC), provides a good example of the remote and mobile access main/ personnel have through any Windows CE-compatible handheld computer.
WOs generated by Datastream 7i are downloaded to 7i Mobile devices in one of several ways: through docking cradles, or through dial-up or wireless connections. These WOs establish the daily work schedule for the person assigned to that PDA. Throughout the rest of the day, the maintenance person uses the PDA both to view WOs in sequence and to enter the detailed data associated with those WOs, including work descriptions, times, and required parts and materials. At the end of a shift, the data within the PDA can be uploaded to Datastream 7i, which reconciles and updates its maintenance database and schedules. WOs can also be created on-the-fly by entering a description of the problem in a dummy WO. Datastream 7i will later number that WO.
Users need not manually input all data by tapping an onscreen keyboard with their fingers or a stylus, or through handwriting-recognition software. Mobile 7i has drill-down menus to retrieve such detailed information as equipment, departments, expense classes, and breakdown codes. 7i Mobile will automatically qualify the data being entered, using audio and visual prompts to ensure against incorrect data entries.
Inspection & meter readings.
As work is performed, maintenance people can use PDAs to "start the clock," as well as to enter relevant information such as equipment and part cycle counts, operating parameters, and other meter readings. As required, Datastream's 7i Mobile can build inspection routes based on those meter readings; out-of-tolerance readings can trigger a WO.
PDAs are supplanting the conventional mobile data collection and display devices found in inventory applications ranging from shipping through picking and receiving, raw materials and finished goods, toolrooms and stockrooms. With built-in barcode scanning technology, PDAs help keep physical inventory information current and available. Users can confirm deliveries by scanning the barcodes on incoming pallets, receive instructions about where to place inventory, check warehouse inventories, scan goods as they're loaded onto trucks, and initiate the printing of freight manifests.
Customer relationship management.
PDA-based CRM, says Susan Hill, Automotive Solution Manager for SAP America, Inc. (Newton Square, PA), helps companies manage everything from service orders and pricing to customer data. Users can manage sales projects and service orders, determine product configurations and pricing, and access and analyze information about customers, products, competitors, and service contracts.
Field service & warranty.
By using PDAs to collect product serial numbers in the field, you can start tracking and analyzing key performance indicators as they relate to repair, warranty, maintenance, and overall quality assurance across the entire product lifecycle. In short, says GE's Selesky, PDAs let companies extend the information about their assets "all the way to those who touch that asset, including consumers and repair people."
SAP lumps such applications into CRM. Field sales, explains Hill, can access current information about products, prices, customer profiles, and order history, while field service can view information about customers, historical service orders, and service contracts.
SAP's Mobile Procurement functionality lets users compare supplier and service prices and features. With workflow automation, PDA users can initiate one-click purchasing for orders within a predefined budget constraint or initiate an approval process for large purchases.
Time & attendance.
Mobile Time Management from SAP covers both shop floor as well as human resource activities. Mobile users record work time (clock-ins, clock-outs, and breaks), access time accounts, check project status, and see when field staff are available. They can also record activities with projects or orders, request time off and get an automated response through workflow-based approvals, and access information such as flex-time balance, time-off entitlements, and incentive wages.
What's the price of mobility?
Some people think PDAs are a nice executive toy or an expensive data collection device. Neither view is true, says Marty Osborn, vp of Product Management for Datastream Systems. Eliminating the need for a technician to return to some data-based umbilical cord saves time. "Is there a business case for having someone go out and fix something, and not have to walk back to a terminal, or go back to the stockroom and then find a part is out-of-stock, or at the end of the day close out a lot of paperwork? My goal, through a mobile application, is to save your technician one hour per day. If I can't do that, then you don't need handheld technology."