Other Voices: Don’t walk into the “Industry 4.0” tech trap

Navigating the digital transformation requires flexibility in mobile hardware, software and users.

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Editor’s Note: The following column by Mark Holleran, president and COO of Xplore Technologies, is part of Modern’s Other Voices column. The series features ideas, opinions and insights from end-users, analysts, systems integrators and OEMs. Click here to learn about submitting a column for consideration.


The only constant in manufacturing, warehousing and distribution is change: changing market conditions, production schedules, inventory levels, etc. Adding to these is the looming shift to Industry 4.0 technology architectures, or the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

Though you’re probably still evaluating the potential ROI for digital innovations like cloud computing and predictive analytics, mobility is now mandatory. In fact, 85% of manufacturers believe mobile solutions are more important this year than ever before, according to VDC Research. That’s because mobile tools like rugged tablets are essential to feeding data from information workers on the shop floor to multiple workflow information systems, such as ERPs and warehouse management systems (WMS), for real-time synchronization and analyzation. They are also the most expedient way to distribute processed data back to workers to facilitate accurate task completion or initiate workflow actions.

In other words, mobile computers are a fundamental component of the new Industry 4.0/IIoT “survival pack” needed to protect your operation’s livelihood despite fluctuating market conditions, increasing competition and evolving customer demands. But, just like calories aren’t indicative of a food’s nutritional value, being “rugged” or even “mobile” is not indicative of a computer’s modern-day value.

Why “Best in Class” is always better – and not necessarily more expensive
It might seem easier to deploy “one-vendor” mobility bundles, especially with tight budgets and limited IT resources. But bundled solutions – the ones that are pre-packaged with plug-and-play hardware, software, accessory and security components – are not always adaptive to change, and can quickly fail to meet your cost, performance and longevity expectations. If they’re not compatible with future technology platforms, you’ll have to compromise.

In contrast, a custom-assembled, best-in-class mobile solution can give you the workable foundation you need to adapt to ongoing operational changes with a framework that is flexible, but stable; future-proof but scalable, starting with the computing device’s lifecycle.

Your workflow needs are not going to be the same as every other player in the market, and your tech systems will likely need constant refinement. Best-in-class solutions are designed to fulfill the needs of your entire team without inflicting disruptive changes on workers or processes. And though you may seemingly get more “tools” for a “lower cost” in a bundled solution, consider if they are really the right tools for your workers. More importantly, consider the Total Cost of Ownership. Ask yourself, what do you really need to support every information worker and every specialized workflow in your facility? A custom-built solution allows you to identify what’s most important to your team – such as unique software, security and control capabilities – and obtain the precise tools needed without paying extra costs for tools that you’ll never use.

Next, consider the workers that will actually be using these mobile solutions day-in and day-out. Mobile tools are designed to improve efficiencies for your team, but let’s face it, your team is busy running your operation and doesn’t necessarily have time to onboard with unknown systems and complex devices. They need a versatile mobile PC that can be integrated into their current workflow – whether on foot or on a forklift – and that can deliver real-time data throughout the day.

According to VDC Research, the demand for mobile solutions that are more intuitive and easier to learn is one of the current key pressures for warehouse environments undergoing mobility transformations. Ultimately, the reason that you’re investing in new mobile technologies is to keep pace with rapidly shifting supply chain dependencies and boost operational excellence, and it would be counterproductive to invest in hardware that can’t elevate your key performance indicators (KPIs). At the end of the day, you don’t want to waste your time or money on technology that is so disruptive to your workforce that it creates additional downtime. The right rugged mobile devices will transform employees into information workers that can be fully connected to actionable data while organizing shipments and operating machinery.

To build a warehouse that can tolerate the constant change anticipated with Industry 4.0/IIoT, you must invest in a mobile computing solution that can adapt as you transition your operations from traditional to digital supply chain structures. By unbundling and providing your team with easy-to-use mobile PCs, you’ll actually have more time, money and manpower from day one.

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