Boeing is no stranger to mobile technology. Aviation depends upon mobility. But almost a hundred years after the company's founding, mobile computing is just beginning to transform the manufacturing and maintenance of aircraft.
Using tablets, manufacturing technicians (MTs) who prepare commercial and military aircraft now have immediate access to information throughout a work facility, says Donald E. Lang, director of IT for the Boeing Military Aircraft unit of Boeing Defense Systems. They can pull up a work order and quickly identify what repairs need to be done with the aid of pictures.
The devices also have safety and productivity benefits. With less need for MTs to move around while working on an aircraft, there's less opportunity for accidents. And minimizing time lost to looking up information means more hands-on time for technicians. "You need to treat them like surgeons," Lang says. "When a surgeon is working on you, you want all the tools nearby."
In the next quarter, Lang plans to begin testing the use of location data from tablets to further improve productivity. Noting that some of Boeing's aircraft are four stories tall and 170 feet long, he says his group is developing an app to display reports specific to where a person is located within an aircraft, like the tail section, using precise GPS coordinates.
Lang's group has two facilities using iPads and is experimenting with Windows 8 tablets, but he insists on talking about tablets rather than a specific brand. The group develops mobile apps that aren't tied to a specific platform. "We've just seen so many technology shifts and we just don't want to go back to square one," to recode apps for a platform shift, he says.
Mobility may be the most meaningful asset of mobile devices, but it's also their most significant liability, particularly in the defense business. Lang says that most of the infrastructure work his group did to adopt tablets had to do with making sure that data disappears if a tablet is removed from a facility. During initial tests, he says, travel-time savings were computed with RFID chips attached to tablets rather than onboard GPS signals, because GPS usage hadn't been cleared with security.
Recharging was another challenge. To maintain tablet operability for 10 hours, Lang's group developed a charging station for parking tablets at the end of a shift and developed push software to handle updates.
The tablets also let certain employees interactively share airplane design presentations with customers. Lang says the company will look at tablet software that lets defense customers adjust aircraft models as part of the design process.