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Mobile Computing Usage on the Rise

The potential for using tablets and wireless information processing technology is great in the forest products industry, says Francis Fournier, Eastern manager of lumber manufacturing technology at the Canadian Forest Research Institute - FPInnovations. “It can be used for many things, such as monitoring and process control in sawmills, planer mills and wood products manufacturing plants. Software programs can also be used with wireless devices to do more efficient inventory management, and to ensure quality.” FPInnovations is currently working on a research project involving the use of wireless technology.


July 9, 2012
By Treena Hein

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Pens and clipboards are being replaced by mobile computing devices across the board in many industrial settings – allowing workers to do things like take speedy, automatic temperature or pressure readings, easily access the maintenance histories on equipment and vehicles, or send a picture with a question to a manager or co-worker for advice. With mobile devices, technicians can also handle work order details more efficiently, transfer and receive information from their office system in real time, or access a vendor’s website and make direct inquiries without office support.

Shoulder straps are a popular choice for tablet users on the move. Photo courtesy of Motion Computing.

“The forest products industry relies heavily on a workforce that spends the majority of its time mobile and in the field, since it’s where the majority of business takes place as well,” notes Scott Ball, the Canadian business development manager for Austin, Texas-based Motion Computing. “This ‘field’ can be anything from an actual field or forest, to a lumberyard, sawmill, warehouse or processing plant.” He says the mobile nature of the forestry industry means companies should be equipping their workers with mobile computing solutions, such as tablet PCs, in order to provide unbridled communication and real-time access to essential data, logistics, reporting and analytics.

Early challenges with mobile computing have been overcome, and the full capabilities of hardware and software are now being realized. Software firms first provided “mobile” versions of what was used in the office, but these were frustrating in that users had to scroll around a lot, and they could sometimes only view information instead of being able to manipulate it. The hardware also wasn’t rugged enough. Systems are now completely adapted to small screen use, and mobile devices include a large range of hardy and powerful tools.

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Tablets Offer More
Up to this point, PDA-style handhelds have been more common than tablets in mobile computing, but their limitations are now resulting in tablet takeover. “The small screen size of handhelds makes it difficult to see the text, especially in poor light situations, and workers are also looking to access more information on-screen,” says Florian Lenders, vice-president at Ivara Asset Performance Management Software in Burlington, Ont. “There’s also concern about the life expectancy of the current PDA operating systems, as Android and other options gain ground.” And, whether you use a handheld or a tablet, both hands are needed – but while handhelds can more easily be clipped onto a belt, tablet portability has come a long way. “They’re stored and are brought out like a clipboard when needed,” says Ball. “They can also be attached to a shoulder strap.” 

The greater amount of information that can be accessed and processed using a tablet is really critical, according to Ball. “From maintaining schedules, inventory and logistics to inspections and process and quality control, the applications of tablet PCs for the forest products industry are endless,” he says. “For example, tablets can be used to track inventory moving in, out and around a lumberyard. When a shipment is ready to be transported, tablets can be used to maintain the shipping information as well as the logistics of the truck or trailer, improving co-ordination and saving time.” He notes that tablet PCs also help eliminate the need for paper, which means a greener footprint and a reduction in the potential for error. “Instead of a form being misplaced, lost or unreadable, users benefit from an electronic document that can be accessed anytime, anywhere,” says Ball.

Integrated documentation features, such as cameras, barcode scanners and RFID readers can help with information handling, as well as allowing works to capture inspection information during a quality control audit or the lumber grading process. These tools are all now considered standard; in Motion Computing’s tablets, these tools are all integrated and not attached with cords, because Ball says attaching items to one another is a potential failure point. “Outdoor screen” technology, which makes it easier to read a screen in direct sunlight, is also becoming standard. “Most customization of mobile computing solutions for each client is therefore all about the software,” Ball notes. The first step is to speak with a well-established company about your needs.

Ruggedized tablets are being used at a number of industrial plants for the collection of equipment condition data. Photo courtesy of Ivara.

Costs Lower Than Ever
The best news of all is that the cost of tablets has dropped enormously in the last 12 months. “The release of the Apple iPad has put a huge amount of pressure on manufacturers to lower their prices,” Lenders says. “The cost of a rugged tablet is now $1,000 to $1,500, which is 50% to 75% less than about a year ago.” In deciding whether or not to try a system, also consider that the overall price of instituting mobile computing at your company will not be as high as you think. Generally, many fewer devices will be needed than what is first believed. Factors like what employees are using them for, and on which shifts, need to be analyzed closely. 

Ball says that service providers generally set up a pilot test with one or two devices where everything from applications to connectivity will be examined. (This test will also give a company a good idea of how soon cost-return can be reached.) “Interference issues where the wireless signal drops off can exist in plants or obviously in the field,” he notes, “but wireless infrastructure is not the barrier it used to be. ‘Store and forward’ is there if you need it.” This means that where a tablet cannot transmit data wirelessly to the office system, it will store it until it can.

When asked to speculate about the future, Ball says he foresees even lighter and more rugged devices, with lots more battery life. “I can see more use of speech recognition too for some things, but ambient noise can be an issue with that.” 


 

Treena Hein is a freelance journalist based in Pembroke, Ont. She researched and produced this article for Canadian Forest Industries.


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