As promised, I’m starting the series on use cases for Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs), beginning with one that may seem unusual to many: mobile auditing and inspection.
This particular usage hits close to home for me, or at least it did when I worked for Quality Assurance in Nokia’s old Alliance factory in the United States. My interest derives from the two roles I held there, first as a data analyst and later as a quality engineer.
One of my first challenges in the factory was to help improve auditing and inspection processes. I was primarily working on data capture and reporting methods for assembly and packing operations, and was discouraged to notice that process auditors and product inspectors were capturing defect information on clipboards and later transferring the data to a central database. The latter part was good, but the former was prone to errors of its own.
I approached my boss with the idea of providing handheld devices to the audit and inspection staff. I would create an intranet front-end for the database and employees could toss away their clipboards in lieu of a more intelligent solution. I received the go-ahead to put a proposal together for cost analysis.
At first I focused on Windows Mobile devices since our infrastructure was mostly Windows-based. That said, the proposed capture method would use standard internet technology so the main requirement other than mobility was a full browser. Along those lines, my manager had me start looking first at Nokia products like the 9300 and then the 7710, the latter being an early touchscreen phone that seemed ideal. I decided a touchscreen was important, as it eased data entry in a live setting.
Around that time I was informed I would need to transition to quality engineer as a primary role since we were about to lose a key employee. When that employee placed a pre-release 770 Internet Tablet on my desk, I felt my pulse quicken. As he rattled off the specifications, I knew I had found the truly perfect device for the auditing job. In short time my colleague procured for me a 770 of my own and the fun began!
Development of the data entry method was easy; I had a prototype intranet page up in no time, with just a few fields for testing purposes. I was even able to develop a simple reporting solution specifically for the tablet using Microsoft’s SQL Server Reporting Service (SSRS), so that users could view metrics as needed instead of waiting for meetings and emails.
The hard part was cracking our Virtual Private Network (VPN).
I was stunned to find that there was no VPN client ready for the tablets, given their potential as highly mobile internet devices. After bouncing around inside of Nokia’s email system I finally found a developer porting openvpn over, but he was encountering bugs. I gladly signed on as a tester so as to facilitate the process where I could.
We were able to get an alpha version working enough to validate the concept, but it was highly problematic for a while. We later found that the problem was more in our server infrastructure than the VPN client, something I was able to help identify quickly by virtue of being in a remote facility.
Ultimately I was able to get a crude prototype of the intranet solution workable, but sadly it was just as we learned the facility was to be shut down. Soon after I was informed I would be a key member of the N800 launch team and once I laid my eyes on one I almost forgot I was being laid off in several months– this thing was so cool that I couldn’t give up! I decided to spend what time I could continuing development of the mobile auditing solution and would share it out to other factories as a best practice.
With the idea’s origin covered, let’s get into details, shall we?
This sort of solution requires data servers and wifi. If servers are behind a firewall, then a VPN client is a must. I also recommend support for instant messaging and email.
Some confuse inspection with auditing but for purpose of this article I’m not going to sweat such details. Either activity can benefit from the mobility offered by MIDs of almost any kind. The main criteria in the typical environment will be decent battery life, touchscreen, full browser capability and wifi. Bonuses would be Bluetooth and a high-quality camera, the latter useful for capturing visual defects or other evidence. A note-taking app might be considered essential as well… but the main thing is a means of capturing data and getting it into a database for further analysis.
Packaging and Labeling
Here’s where that camera comes in handy, as well as Bluetooth. A barcode scanning application and/or a means of connecting to Bluetooth scanning devices (including RFID) can help the inspector verify label and possibly package contents in real-time. Just about everywhere I’ve worked, getting shipping information correct has been a major challenge– at the very least, accurate verification methods enabled by MIDs can elevate awareness of issues with packing processes.
In addition to labels, bills of lading can be error-prone as well. Here again the fast access to up-to-date requirements can be a lifesaver for rushed inspectors. This would of course require access to the repositories, which I’ve seen managed by everything from engineering Product Data Management (PDM) systems to Lotus Notes.
Of course captured data, regardless of how valuable it is perceived in the course of capture, can be useless without contextual reporting and analysis that is plugged into corrective action plans. While some of this can certainly be carried out on handhelds, much of it will naturally be done on desktops or laptops due if nothing else to the limited screen sizes of MIDs. Try working with a large spreadsheet on one!
Anyway I see the MIDs as just part of an integrated data consumption and managing ecosystem. They will need to play nice with what’s already in common use.
While this example was indeed proven out, at least in prototypical fashion, I don’t know if it was ever deployed in any Nokia factories. Based on lukewarm corporate response to my proposals, I got the impression that there just was not much interest in getting these products into industrial use, even in-house. While there may be a broader plan at work, and the internet tablets mobile computers like the Maemo 5-based Nokia N900 may be aimed squarely at consumers, I still believe a huge opportunity is being missed if this avenue is not being explored. Why should Windows handhelds have all the fun?
I would recommend a ruggedized version, or at least design the products to be open to aftermarket add-ons of that nature.
I will be doing more of these in the near future, although maybe not in such anecdotal fashion. I welcome any ideas on use cases to cover… regardless of how exotic or bizarre! 😉
note: stock images are free for distribution, as is my derived work