MID use case: mobile auditing and inspection

Slide1

click for full-size image

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.

Background

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!

Early Challenges

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?

InfrastructureSlide2

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.

Auditing Processes

Slide3Some 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

Slide4Here’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.

Delivery

Slide5In 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.

Follow-up

Of course captured data, regardless of how valuable Slide6it 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.

Conclusion

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.

Going Forward

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

14 responses to “MID use case: mobile auditing and inspection

  1. Pingback: Use cases for Mobile Internet Devices « Tabula Crypticum

  2. “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 really believe what you are doing is critical to growing the ecosystem, by proving that this is really a multifaceted tool that be be used for virtually any application. The best part is you could decompose the business process into several stand alone applications that would be very valuable to the mass market consumers.

    Geesh its like NASA all over without the budget but all of downstream benefits.

    • Thanks Matthew, glad to see someone else who Gets It! 😉

      I am simultaneously excited by broad potential and discouraged at seeing it mostly unexplored after 4 years…

      • I think that consumerism route is not a bad thing. we will see a lot of dirt, but there will be diamonds. Where it will get really interesting is when the someone sees the a great concept in a mediocre use case and applies it to something better. Consider the idea of visual voice mail.

  3. Great article. I wish you could have rolled this out into production. That production feedback could have really improved the setup.

    Back about 9 years ago, I set up a preventive maintainence system using a Palm 3 device. It wasn’t real time updating, but it was kinda cool. The user would sync the palm daily. When it synced, it down loaded all the new action items for the following day. In addition it up loaded all the task completed on that day. The user would then go to the equipment and conduct the task as assigned by the palm. The user would then check mark the completed task in palm and make notes as necessary. The pm manager could easily update the tasks through his database.

    Anyway, the pm department used it for about 3 months but they stop using it because it was to difficult to read the screen. They decided to go back to the paper system.

    I do, however, believe this is the future. I can imagine wireless data collection interfacing with SPC software. The user can then quickly enter data at the point of manufacturing and then quickly see and make judgement from the SPC chart.

    • Thanks Robert, and it’s always exciting for me to read about deployments like yours. This sort of thing definitely SHOULD be the future for operations… it’s up to us to keep driving that point home!

  4. Hi Texrat! Mobile auditing and inspection is a usage case that could be deployed at my workplace as well. The process really has to take the human error out of the loop, as you have pointed out. I think the people that really have it correct (at the moment) are the major courier services (FedEX, Purolator, UPS, DHL, etc). Their system, although running WinMo, is IMO pretty slick. Now, a Linux based tablet solution for something like that would be tres bon. Keep up the articles on usage cases – you never know what ideas will pop out of people’s head after being given a taste…

    • WinMo or not, I’d love to see something like this at work. I was sooo disappointed our factory’s plug was pulled just as all the pieces were coming together…😦

      But on the other hand, who knows: I may get another opportunity to put something like this together. 😉

  5. I don’t know If I said it already but …Hey good stuff…keep up the good work!🙂 I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks,)

    A definite great read..Jim Bean

  6. allnameswereout

    The device has to be able to optimized for the task (like a barcode reader, or a RFID reader). Buying a Nokia N900 for such is quite expensive.

    But you can also think of seperate hardware with the Nokia device (now: Java ME @ S40, S60, later: whatever + Qt @ Maemo/S60/whatever). Here is an example of Java ME client application allowing access to a ‘RFID firewall’: http://www.rfidguardian.org/index.php/Nokia_Cellphone_User_Interface

  7. Pingback: Opening up to Open Source « Tabula Crypticum

  8. Pingback: Maemo community outreach: Dallas open source Saturday « Tabula Crypticum

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s