Government // Mobile & Wireless
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7/12/2012
11:26 AM
Chris Murphy
Chris Murphy
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iPads In Factories: Early Lessons From GE

GE Energy Storage is piloting iPads in a New York battery factory. Check out big lessons from a small pilot.

GE is investing $170 million in a factory in Schenectady, N.Y., to build what it touts as "next-generation batteries," running 10 times as long at half the size. Making the batteries requires precise manufacturing specs, and plant leaders are experimenting with using iPads on the factory floor as part of their machine monitoring.

It's a small pilot program, with only about 15 iPads out in the factory, which only officially opened this month. (It's a brownfield renovation of an old GE plant, with hopes of hiring 450 people.) This isn't an arm's-length test: the GE Energy Storage factory is using iPads to access GE's commercial software for industrial controls. But given that tablets are just starting to be used in this kind of industrial setting, it's interesting to hear what lessons GE is learning. Here's what I took from talking with Randy Rausch, the factory's business analytics and manufacturing information leader:

iPads can integrate: The main way employees on the 200,000 square foot factory floor use the iPads is to access operating data about a machine. GE's Proficy software powers industry control (SCADA) systems, and an app from the App Store is used to access the data. The app can alert an employee if a machine is running too hot, for example, providing a warning sign of a malfunction. Staff can look at non-GE software on iPads, too, such as engineering drawings or product lifecycle management software. Rausch expects to add access to Oracle E-business suite apps in the future. "It's a computer like any other," he says.

The iPads are reasonably durable: The team uses a simple rubberized case. "We've dropped a couple, and they survived," Rausch says. Plus, iPads are cheap enough that if they break now and then, that's OK. GE looked at $2,000 ruggedized handheld devices and decided they weren't worth the price tag. They're evaluating screen covers.

[ Want more? Read 9 Powerful Business Uses For Tablet Computers. ]

People on the factory floor benefit: Team leaders and line managers on the factory floor are making the best use of the iPad's mobility, since they can use them to quickly solve problems such as machine breakdowns or staff imbalances. Rausch plans to have about 40 in use by year's end, though he insists that anyone getting an iPad commits to providing feedback to the community. "I've been pretty stingy about handing them out," he says.

Security and management are OK, so far: Rausch is using AirWatch mobile device management software, which has the fundamentals he needs to secure and manage the iPads. That's similar to what we hear from other iPad adopters--that the MDM is good enough for most needs. The iPads are Wi-Fi-only, since they're meant to stay in the plant. Rausch hasn't tried to restrict what apps are on the device, but that's something he's looking into before expanding the pilot.

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Location isn’t a high priority: Rausch thinks it's possible to use GPS or even Wi-Fi triangulation to drive location-based data inside the factory--providing data about the machine a person is standing near, for instance. But so far, people have been very efficient just using a factory map and drilling down into that.

Cameras are time savers: Cameras are an often-underestimated tool as companies plan their tablet pilots. GE workers have used FaceTime for ad hoc videoconferencing with colleagues in the U.K. who developed the battery products. They've also taken pictures or quick videos to send to those experts so they have a common reference point. All that could be done before the iPad, using a digital camera or desktop video. The point is, people rarely did. "It's all possible [without an iPad], but the fact that it's so easy, people do it a lot more," Rausch says.

Have your own experience, bad or good, with tablets in the factory? Share them with your peers in the comments below.

At this year's InformationWeek 500 Conference, C-level execs will gather to discuss how they're rewriting the old IT rulebook and accelerating business execution. At the St. Regis Monarch Beach, Dana Point, Calif., Sept. 9-11.

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TerryB
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TerryB,
User Rank: Ninja
7/12/2012 | 5:56:57 PM
re: iPads In Factories: Early Lessons From GE
Chris, this is one of those stories where more detail would have been very helpful. For example, where did the app in Apple Store to access Proficy come from? Did GE write it? What non GE software did they use? Were the engineering drawings AutoCAD stuff or simple PDF documents? How does the iPad authenticate to their server where these drawings are stored? What is their server security, Microsoft AD or something else?

Those are kind of things which matter, at least here. That is why we don't use Mac's here for desktops because MS is on the servers and you want the domain security out of the box. I'm sure there are ways Mac's can work with AD but what is the point (business payoff) of adding that level of support just so you can use a Mac? Does Apple let you enter or retrieve server data any faster than Windows PC's?

The real test is coming when Windows tablets come out. Then you would think they would participate in AD and behave like a mobile Windows desktop, assuming you have Windows servers holding your documents and data. But I have not seen any detail that Win Tablets will be AD domain computers, all the early stuff I've read aimed at consumers who don't care.

Also curious whether cheaper Android tablets would have worked just as well as iPads for GE. What can't Android do that GE needed? Is there only Proficy app for iPad? If so, why?

But you are right on, many of us involved in shop floor IT support are watching very closely how we can apply these highly mobile tablets and phones. Hopefully you can follow up on this GE project at later time and see if all worked out for them.
GAProgrammer
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GAProgrammer,
User Rank: Ninja
7/12/2012 | 6:54:16 PM
re: iPads In Factories: Early Lessons From GE
I agree more detail would have been nice, but GE may not have been forthcoming about the details. Currently there is no way to integrate iPads with AD - that's why IT is all abuzz about the Surface Pro.

To me, the interesting part is that all of these things could have been done before with laptops but they didn't do that. Also, they could probably do the same things on Android tablets, assuming there is an app that does the interfacing. However, the industry would likely write apps for iDevices as they are the primary tablet market at this point and let's face it - no one wants to monitor industrial equipment on a smartphone.
ChrisMurphy
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ChrisMurphy,
User Rank: Author
7/12/2012 | 7:40:14 PM
re: iPads In Factories: Early Lessons From GE
Fair point, TerryB, more would be better. I do know it is GE's iPad app, not a third party. I don't know the other answers, those were passing references to the other software platforms and I didn't dig in on those in limited interview time. I'll post if I learn more.

Re iPad v. Android tablets -- i didn't ask about why not Android. But remember, this is not only for GE's internal factory use, GE is in the software business. GE is developing an Android app. But by choosing to do an iPad app first, it's making a call -- tells me GE thinks iPads are what's most likely to get used on the factory floor right now. That in itself is pretty interesting.
ChrisMurphy
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ChrisMurphy,
User Rank: Author
7/12/2012 | 9:37:37 PM
re: iPads In Factories: Early Lessons From GE
Here's what Prasad Pai, product manager for GE's HMI/SCADA products, says in response to the comments earlier. (Pai was going to post directly but hit a glitch, so just emailed to me). From Pai:

"Yes, we built the ProficySCADA iPad app using some third-party technologies and made it tightly wrapped around GE Intelligent PlatformsG SCADA products. Unless content like AutoCAD drawings or PDF documents are accessed via these products, the app does not allow for independent software access. The iPad app is an extension of our web-based SCADA offerings G WebSpace and GlobalView so the authentication is taken care by the servers that host the various client connections. Users can have a free mix of Web and iPad clients going through the same server so if they want to use AD (Active Directory) for authentication, they are free to configure that on their servers and the iPad app will honor that authentication.

"Regarding the comment on Gǣno one wants to monitor industrial equipment on a smart phone,Gǥ I think the definition of monitoring has changed over the years. Monitoring does not mean constantly supervising equipment anymore. With reducing workforce and increasing workload, getting a quick status update of critical equipment is getting to be the norm. So, I agree that no one would want to operate equipment through smartphones all the time, but there is an increasing trend of Gǣstaying withGǥ their operations wherever they go."
stahmasebi9211
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stahmasebi9211,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/13/2012 | 8:38:28 PM
re: iPads In Factories: Early Lessons From GE
A company can create their own in-house iOS app and have it distributed only to employees wirelessly also.
Sam Iam
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Sam Iam,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/16/2012 | 2:01:50 AM
re: iPads In Factories: Early Lessons From GE
I doubt GE uses AD. People will be, should be, moving towards a standards based LDAP server which can work outside of Windows. I would think GE is a large enough org where AD was never practical for their scale, heterogeneity, and security standards. Generally the major companies use IBM Tivoli Identity and Access Manager or Sun/Oracle.
Sam Iam
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Sam Iam,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/16/2012 | 2:26:33 AM
re: iPads In Factories: Early Lessons From GE
Yes, AD is a Microsoft proprietary product. It is used to sell Windows. If companies are running an LDAP server which can only integrate with one OS, they should look at changing their LDAP server (as the whole idea is to have a common access and identity standard across platforms) instead of limiting themselves to one platform forever.
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