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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After considering a number of options, Formella turned to Apple iPod Touches. When the iPad was introduced, he felt he finally had a viable solution.

"For years, it has felt like we've had our hands tied with the poor performance of various Windows Mobile-based touch devices," he explains. "With most of our [custom-built] enterprise software running as a Web application, the iPad has become the perfect match for us as a low-cost and high-performance mobility solution."

Along with Bluetooth bar-code scanners, iPads, enclosed in industrialized casing made by OtterBox, are mounted via specialty hardware from Ram Mounts onto carts that cruise the MBX warehouse (see photo below).

MBX Systems' factory floor iPad implementation
MBX Systems used specialized hardware from OtterBox and Ram Mount to encase and mount iPads, along with Bluetooth bar-code scanners, on carts that cruise its warehouse.

Instead of fumbling with paper instructions or kludgy mobile devices, warehouse operators are served their picking tickets directly on the iPad and can enter any exceptions (for example, a pallet that was damaged or a shipment with fewer parts than expected) to feed back into a custom Web-based ERP system.

Since they first started using the tablets last November -- 10 iPads were deployed initially -- workers in the MBX warehouse can pick, on average, 14% more orders per month while reducing picking defects by 20%.

In the factory, employees no longer have to carry clipboards and use pen and paper to record notes about exceptions or write descriptions of quality problems -- and later re-enter the information on a PC (which they sometimes never got around to doing at all, Formella admits). "Now they can do everything they'd do on their desk on the iPad while picking -- they can even check email," he says.

Plans call for pushing instructions on how to assemble the hardware appliances and embedded systems MBX manufactures out to the iPads. Navigating the instructions will be easier on the iPad's touchscreen; currently, operators have to sit in front of a monitor and manually scroll through assembly details.

MBX's iPad rollout hasn't been without its share of challenges, Formella admits. Security wasn't an issue, because everything is done via the Web-based system, which is protected with standard SSL encryption and passwords; no data is stored on the iPads themselves.

Still, the group had to jury-rig the tablet to accommodate the Bluetooth bar-code reader, and Formella had to take some steps to lock down the devices to prevent operators from installing personal apps -- including the staff favorite, Angry Birds. Physical theft wasn't as much of a concern, Formella says, because the devices are attached to the carts, making them pretty difficult to take off with.

While he's happy with the Apple products, Formella emphasizes that it's the tablet form factor, rather than the brand, that works for MBX. "We did evaluate other tablets, but at the time there wasn't anything competitive [to the iPad]. If we were to do the project today, I think we may have chosen one of the Android-based tablets, mostly because they don't seem to have the same issues and workarounds associated with making the Bluetooth scanner work," Formella says.

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