Expanding the Use of Tablets in Manufacturing

These handy electronic devices can simplify almost any operational task.

Like many of you, I am seeing more and more creative uses for tablet computers in manufacturing operations. The versatility of these devices, as well as widespread availability of clever applications (more commonly referred to as apps), can simplify almost any task. (You also should invest in a high-quality protective case, as “things can happen.”)

Some ideal uses for today’s generation of tablets include:

Document control. As a computer, a tablet can access and display documents of all types. The all-too-common problem of using outdated or obsolete documents is greatly minimized when document revisions are controlled and only the correct documents are made available to users.  Mistakes made as a result of using out-of-date drawings, specifications or procedures are reduced, if not eliminated entirely, when everyone gets their information from an up-to-date tablet instead of where those documents have traditionally been stored in drawers, toolboxes or other hidden locations.

Display work instructions. As work instructions become more photo- and graphics-based, the high resolution of tablet screens makes them ideal devices for displaying these instructions. Additionally, a tablet’s size and weight allows it to be positioned at the point of use. The versatile “swiping” feature of a tablet allows operators to access different pages of an instruction document with one hand, while the hand/finger gestures that control the tablet’s display make it easy to focus on specific information needed at any time.

For sure, tablets can make accessing and reading work instructions easier, especially for complex assemblies and fabrications. In some companies, the use of tablets is actually improving the organization and clarity of work instructions as they become more visually oriented. While useful in manufacturing operations, tablets are also seeing a greater role in maintenance and repair functions (taking advantage of a device’s ability to order the right replacement parts for machinery “on the spot” and receiving alerts when equipment goes down) and quality departments (where data collection and analysis is critical), as their versatility and ease of use are proving their value.

Capture images. Often when problems are encountered, processes must stop while resources are called upon to review the problem and decide on a course of action. Just trying to reach the right person can waste a lot of time and cause further production delays. In many cases, however, a tablet’s camera can capture images that can convey the problem to those right people, regardless of their location, and reduce the time required to reach a decision about fixing the problem. The photos can even prove helpful in documenting the problem and the solution, serving as a training/troubleshooting aid should the problem recur. 

Record and play audio. In certain cases, audio instructions may be useful in clarifying or supporting existing documentation. Such audio can be loaded onto the tablet, in multiple languages if necessary, and provide extra guidance when needed. Although the use of audio likely requires headphones so as not to disturb other employees, this may prove to be one of the few justifiable and value-added uses of headphones in the workplace.

As a multi-tool. A tablet’s calculator function can enable quick calculations to be performed when needed. Likewise, apps and add-on devices allow a tablet to be used as a common tool, such as a ruler/scale, thermometer, flashlight, protractor, carpenter’s level, magnifier, vibration detector, humidity and pressure sensor, weigh scale, bar-code scanner, and so much more. In effect, a tablet can replace any number of separate devices that can clutter a workstation.

As a reference/data-collection device. Tablets can store reference information and calculations commonly required in manufacturing, including unit conversions for various types of measurements (fractional, decimal, metric), speed and feed calculations, electrical power consumption calculations, Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), and various types of angle calculations. Tablets can also replace paper and improve data collection by employing date and time stamps on in-process inspection sheets, preventive maintenance checklists, machine setup checklists (helpful on setups crossing multiple shifts), and corrective-action documents. The date and time stamps are especially useful in discouraging people from filling in data on checklists after the fact.

With all of this functionality, it is easy to see why companies are employing tablets throughout manufacturing operations. If you have not already done so, think about where you could use a tablet to make a task easier. If you can imagine it, you can do it. Before too long, there will be many areas benefitting from the use of tablets and you will wonder how you did things “in the old days.”