The iPad takes on manufacturing

The iPad, darling of the consumer crowd, dares to get gritty as Pfizer and other companies try it out in industrial settings.

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Sensing an opportunity around tablets and mobility, major vendors of manufacturing, warehousing and logistics software are busy working with key customers to pilot experimental apps and to explore how to best leverage the technology.

SAP, for example, is in the process of looking at its product line and creating a road map for potential apps, including ones for manufacturing, says Frank Schuler, vice president solution management for manufacturing at SAP. Other major vendors, including RedPrairie, which offers warehouse management and logistics software, AspenTech, a provider of process manufacturing optimization software, and Rockwell Automation, are also actively developing and testing apps that will have a home on the iPad and other mobile devices.

As in other markets where users and vendors are exploring the possibilities of mobile computing, the challenge for manufacturing software vendors is to develop apps that take full advantage of tablets' unique user interfaces while still meeting customers' business requirements.

"The newer devices open up totally new ways of people accessing information and navigating through the app in a graphical way," says Schuler. "The navigation paradigm lends itself to a more casual user than the typical user interaction."

Cruising the warehouse

The quest for more mobility on the plant floor is hardly new. Windows-based mobile devices have been available for years, and many of them are "ruggedized" to survive the harsher environments of factories and warehouses. But the general consensus is that they are limited in functionality and saddled with screens too small to be useful.

Ruggedized PCs have been another option, but they are expensive (typically around $5,000) and don't untether users from the need to be at a specific location to get information feeds or to input data on the fly. Ruggedized laptops somewhat solve the mobility problem, but they're still much heavier and more expensive than their consumer cousins.

MBX Systems, a manufacturer of hardware appliances and embedded systems, had traditionally used Motorola Windows Mobile devices and bar-code scanners in its warehouse to keep track of inventory and to pick orders, but the devices never lived up to their promise, according to Justin Formella, CIO of the Wauconda, Ill.-based company.

The screens were tiny, the devices were slow and there was no room for a keyboard. Some of the mobile units required a stylus for input, but those would often get lost, so operators used real pens on the screen, which destroyed them. "These devices were marketed as ruggedized and industrial, but they didn't hold up well," Formella says.

As for newer Windows-based mobile devices, MBX looked but was still not impressed. "We did evaluate the newer generation of devices, but to be honest, most of the drawbacks still weren't addressed," Formella says.

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