First it won accolades as the next killer consumer device. Then it slipped into the backpacks and briefcases of white-collar information workers, and in some cases it's becoming a corporate-sanctioned alternative to the laptop.
Now the Apple iPad -- and, to a lesser extent, emerging competitors in the burgeoning tablet market -- are starting to pop up on the plant floor and in distribution centers and warehouses, promising to wring efficiencies and cost savings out of industrial operations by offering mobility and real-time data visibility to workers in manufacturing.
"When Apple created the iPad, the [manufacturing] industry had a sort of wake-up call ... that mobility is not only relevant for people outside the company, but also for those inside the company who have information needs and are not tied to their desk, but are tied to their asset," says Pierfrancesco Manenti, a manufacturing analyst at IDC Insights.
"With a relatively small investment, companies can re-create the whole information-on-the-fly scenario that was nearly impossible before unless they made enormous investments in PCs, cable networks and ruggedized PCs."
Specifically, workers strolling the plant floor while armed with a tablet device can, for example, readily track key performance indicators, get real-time alerts on potential equipment failures, tap into corporate data and even control machines remotely.
Featuring wireless capabilities and spacious, high-resolution screens, these units are well equipped to deliver visual or even animated work instructions to an operator of a specific machine, and could even update those instructions in real time if there were changes.
Thanks to higher-end capabilities like onboard video and voice and geo-reference information, a tablet could steer a worker to an area where there's a problem on a production line or in a warehouse. The worker could then use the tablet to record a video of the problem and send the video to the corporate office for more effective troubleshooting.
A toe in the water...
All good stuff, but to be clear: The iPad-led tablet invasion into operations is just getting started. Many experts say there are limitations to what is essentially still a consumer device. For example, there are questions about the durability of tablets in harsh environments, not to mention concerns about security and gaps in functionality, particularly when it comes to working with bar codes and scanners, a cornerstone of warehouse operations.
Still, just as the iPad is coming into office suites in the hands of people who love using it in their personal lives, that same "consumerization of IT" trend is prompting manufacturing and IT execs to consider tablets as a economical and accessible replacements for expensive ruggedized PCs or hard-to-use Windows-based dedicated mobile devices.