Q&A: Communications On The Warehouse Floor

Mike Lanciloti, VP of product management at Spectralink, discusses mobile device trends for the manufacturing industry and the challenges they face in the warehouse environment.

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Mike Lanciloti, vice president of product management and marketing at Colorado-based Spectralink, spoke with Manufacturing Business Technology recently about mobile communications in manufacturing settings. Lanciloti discusses why purpose-built devices might be better than smartphones to run a successful business.

Manufacturing Business Technology: What are some of the trends you’ve seen during the past year in terms of mobile device needs for the manufacturing and distribution industries, and what are manufacturers and distributors looking for their mobile devices to provide as we move into 2015?

Mike Lanciloti: A couple of trends that we’ve seen in the last year: the first one I would say is recognition of the limitations of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD). Most organizations we’ve seen have experimented, at least, with BYOD and it hasn’t always been successful. 

Second is much more acceptance of Android devices in the business world and manufacturing in particular. People view it as an option to Apple, it provides them choices in manufacturing, choices in form factor.

MBT: In many workplaces, personal mobile devices aren’t ideal. What are some of the limitations of consumer-grade smartphones and how can they interfere with workers in the manufacturing environment?

ML: The first thing I’d say is one big limitation is durability. Consumer smartphones are not designed for the workplace and they’re certainly not designed for an industrial manufacturing workplace with concrete floors. Sometimes people will drop things from a forklift, or maybe there are other kinds of environments like dust, splashing water, high humidity, etc., that can be a problem — so durability is a big concern. If a product breaks that people depend on, they can’t do their jobs.

The second limitation that we see is dissatisfaction with short product life cycles. Let’s say an organization wanted to buy a bunch of mobile devices. Consumer devices typically have about an 18-month lifespan before they’re obsolete and companies offer something that’s supposedly better. We see many of our customers very unhappy with that. Short product life cycles make it very problematic for manufacturers to purchase a bunch of equipment and accessories, then get everyone trained on the best way to use that equipment before it’s out of date. 

The other example we see in limitations is voice quality on Wi-Fi. Many manufacturing and warehouse environments don’t always have cellular coverage throughout the whole building or campus. Generally, what we find is it’s spotty and they can’t rely on it. So one of the things that they’re looking for on their mobile device, and in this case a consumer grade smartphone, is they want to just rely on Wi-Fi for everything — for data and voice — and generally what we see in almost all cases is it’s not sufficient, it doesn’t work very well on a consumer grade smartphone.

Finally, the next thing I’d say that we get a lot of negative feedback on is battery life and replacement of batteries, if it’s even possible. We all know in the iPhone family battery replacement is impossible unless you send it to a repair depot. With many other devices it’s possible to replace a battery but it can be complicated and time-consuming.

We see a lot of limitations of consumer smartphones. That’s just some of them.

MBT: Security has become a bigger emphasis each year for companies, which need to protect both their data and their devices from outside threats. How do purpose-built, in-building mobile devices provide a check-and-balance against IT security threats?

ML: The first way that a purpose-built device fights against security threats is that it’s company owned and not owned by the employee. That’s No. 1.

No. 2, it’s not sharing personal data. We know that there’s some organizations who try to segregate personal and work data on devices so that sensitive work data can be separated and protected. With a purpose-built device that’s not necessary. Everything that’s on the device is considered proprietary, company-owned and all has the same amount of security.

Also, purpose-built devices are a lot less likely to be stolen and they also provide better management hooks so that everything on the device can be completely under the control of IT.

MBT: With all the various ways mobile devices can communicate today, including texting and automatic notifications, using them for what they are intended for — talking to another person — can sometimes be overlooked. Can you discuss why voice quality is a growing concern for manufacturers, and what they can do to address these concerns?

ML: Voice is a given. For all of our customers, whenever they buy a device, they just assume wherever they need it that voice will work, it’s a smartphone. The assumption is, “We’ll always have voice.” We know that’s not always true.

I mentioned before sometimes the core cell coverage in manufacturing and factory environments is Wi-Fi. People assumed Wi-Fi would be able to address coverage in a facility and they’ve found out that it hasn’t. So it was an assumption that people had, and it’s been one of the backlashes we’ve seen in the last year or so.

MBT: It seems like the demand for Wi-Fi is rising everywhere, from public places to businesses. There’s also increasing pressure on Wi-Fi providers to expand their solutions and services. Why is there such a demand? Are you seeing the need for better, more powerful Wi-Fi in manufacturing as well?

ML: Yeah, absolutely. What we’re beginning to see is that Wi-Fi is viewed as a utility that needs to be present as much as possible in all the facilities that manufacturers have. Just like they have power, in many cases they have local area networks, we’re beginning to see now that Wi-Fi is viewed just as much as a utility.

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