Mobile Technologies for Factory Management

How a generational shift is fueling the factory of the future.

Editor’s note: The manufacturing industry as we know it has changed. Gone are the days of rigid supply chains – today’s manufacturers are smart, nimble and customer-focused. This week on Longitudes, we’re taking a look at how technology and people are changing the way we make the world.

Factory automation continues to be a driving force in manufacturing, allowing for reduced costs, greater operational efficiencies, improved quality and the optimization of the supply chain. But supplier challenges and a generational shift in the workplace may add a speed bump or two along the way.

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Growth in software, the IoT and the integration of mobile technologies are changing manufacturing.

Putting cobots, or those shiny new collaborative robots aside, the evolution of factory automation continues to pick up speed.

In the metaphorical blink of an eye, we have gone from traditional machine tools and card-driven control systems to flexible machining centers in lights-out factories, automated warehouses and autonomous vehicles, 3D printing collapsing prototype lead times and the ever-present march of the robots quietly driving productivity enhancements.

Add the growth in software applications, the Internet of Things and the rapid integration of mobile technologies, and we are indeed at the precipice of massive changes in manufacturing.

Mobile technologies, including the ubiquitous smartphones and tablets and a generational cohort comfortable with their use, are also gaining considerable speed in factory automation and management. A seamless flow of cross-platform information has become almost second nature.

On a mobile device, one can check out supplier deliveries, equipment utilization, customer service levels and forecasting models as easily as a sports score, a social media post or this blog.

Even those big and bulky ERP systems, forever sitting on a mainframe with hundreds or thousands of standalone screens displaying information, are now found on mobile devices. In fact, there is indeed an app for that, with some ERP systems now downloadable onto the phone in the pocket of your jacket.

Think of it as a factory in your pocket.

Supply chain inequities

Companies that are pushing the boundaries of factory automation will need like-minded suppliers. While the aforementioned factory of the future may be gaining speed in some industry segments, many members of the global supply chain area generation or two behind.

And that is where the problem lies. There may be some suppliers who just won’t – or can’t – subscribe to changes in technology necessary to make the cut. Perhaps this will lead to a supply chain of haves and have nots: suppliers cast aside by a technology-based natural selection.

Suppliers can be an independent lot. There will be those suppliers who take a different approach to their customers, along with the obligations that come with such change. For example, too much pressure can drive suppliers away, as the big box retailers have found.

Supply chain managers will need to make a careful choice about supplier relationships and selection as it relates to technology. Their marketing counterparts similarly will need to determine the best customer profile. Both sides too often overlook these changes.

Changing generations in the workplace

As a Baby Boomer, I have certainly experienced lots of changes in manufacturing over the years. But millennials have driven many of the changes in manufacturing, especially related to mobile technologies.

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Millennials have driven many of the changes in manufacturing, especially related to mobile technologies.

These digital natives grew up with the smartphones in their hands, the web at their beck and call and gaming devices in their bedrooms. To this generation, mobile technologies are not optional but standard operating equipment. This generation is now the driver in factory automation design and implementation, and mobile technologies are leading the pack.

But while we Boomers and Generation Xers age out of the manufacturing workforce, Generation Z is nipping at the heels of millennials. This is the current high school and college generation who grew up with mobile technology and expect it in all aspects of their working and professional lives. Within a few years, they will enter an increasingly mobile workforce.

The challenge is to not only address the current and expected labor shortage but to drive even more technological change.

We need to convince them advanced manufacturing is the home of leading-edge technologies and that the sky is the limit to influence that ever shifting factory of the future – a factory run from a tablet or a smartphone … or maybe somewhere else entirely.

[Top Image: Craig Sybert/Unsplash; GIF/Getty Images]

Rich Weissman is an experienced supply chain management practitioner and educator who works with businesses to build scalable and sustainable supply chain strategies. Rich writes and speaks extensively on issues impacting the global supply chain.

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