Mobile Data Collection

Eric Weisbrod
By Eric Weisbrod | October 9, 2012
Vice President, Product Management

Like many things in the manufacturing world, the definition of “mobile data collection” changes based on company, environment, collection type, required functionality, and who knows how many other variables. After many discussions with many clients on this topic, some general definitions of mobile data collection include:

  • Data Collection Cart – A movable cart that contains a laptop, gages and a wireless connection allows the user to move about the shop floor and collect data.
  • Ruggedized PC/Tablet – There are many tablets that run the Windows operating system and can be used like a normal PC/laptop. These ruggedized tablets can have integrated barcode scanners, Bluetooth, wireless, serial ports, etc. to work with other equipment.
  • Tablet – Devices like an iPad can run as a thin-client to collect data into an enterprise quality system. These devices don’t typically have connections to measurement devices, though that isn’t precluded.
  • Handheld – These devices are typically standalone and run an operating system other than full Windows. These devices may store data locally, to be transferred to another system via ‘syncing’, or use a wireless connection to an enterprise system.
  • Mobile Phone – While many mobile phones can be used like a ‘Tablet’ listed above and connect as a thin client, data collection through a simple HTML browser (Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox, Safari) has many advantages.

When considering mobile data collection needs, it is critical to understand your requirements. It isn’t difficult to imagine that certain industries and IT infrastructures may quickly drive decisions. For example, if your company doesn’t have thin-client expertise, that will require a device capable of running a full Windows operating system or relying on a system that allows input through available technologies, like web browsers. There are many types of requirements:

  • Environment – Does the device need to be waterproof to protect it during a line cleaning?
  • Data Types – What kind of data is collected? Variable data benefits from a numerical keypad, while attribute data is often driven by pick lists or keyboard entry.
  • Required Functionality – Does the device support the desired software? Perhaps measurement devices are going to be used, which require USB and/or RS-232 ports.
  • Data Collection Location – Will data be collected within your site, where it can use the wireless network? If data is to be collected in the field, how can that be accommodated?
  • Data Latency – If the device is ‘synced’ to a central system, can you afford the delay to receiving that data? Will the device notify operators of alarms as they happen in real time, or will they have to wait until syncing to be notified?

If at all possible, you should try several devices before making a selection. There is nothing like a “real world” test to highlight differences in overall usability. There are many things to consider, but some common criteria include:

  • Battery Life – Will the battery last a shift? Who will replace the batteries? Does the device have multiple batteries that are “hot-swappable”, allowing users to change batteries without having to shut down the device?
  • Screen Resolution – Will the device support a screen resolution that is compatible with the software being run?
  • Ergonomics – Does the device easily fit into your manufacturing environment? Some industries prefer smaller devices that allow for easier maneuverability, while others prefer larger screens for better data viewing and analysis. There are often compromises in the overall form factor.
  • Configurability – Many devices have buttons and systems that can be configured. These configurable items can make a device seem like it’s been designed for your manufacturing environment.

Selecting a mobile device to suit your environment, operators and infrastructure can be challenging. Like all new systems, outlining your requirements and evaluating the devices in your environment will help you make an informed decision. Polling other sites in your company or industry allows you to learn through others’ experiences and helps ensure you won’t repeat their mistakes. When it comes to investments in technology, you’re wise to spend your time investigating the system upfront because it’s a system you’ll be living with for years to come.

Learn more in the webinar Mobile Data Collection, Dashboards and the Enterprise Quality Hub.

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