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.

Chris Murphy, Editor, InformationWeek

July 12, 2012

4 Min Read

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.

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About the Author(s)

Chris Murphy

Editor, InformationWeek

Chris Murphy is editor of InformationWeek and co-chair of the InformationWeek Conference. He has been covering technology leadership and CIO strategy issues for InformationWeek since 1999. Before that, he was editor of the Budapest Business Journal, a business newspaper in Hungary; and a daily newspaper reporter in Michigan, where he covered everything from crime to the car industry. Murphy studied economics and journalism at Michigan State University, has an M.B.A. from the University of Virginia, and has passed the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exams.

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