Have wireless – will travel

Advances in mobile communications to date have largely been felt in the leisure and entertainment industry. But it may be just the thing for roaming engineers too.

Any time, any place, anywhere, that much-loved Martini slogan of the 1970s, has been reborn as the unofficial motto of the wireless age. Mobile telecoms and portable computing offer the chance to access, send and receive data without those annoying cables. But are engineers any more likely to be seen in the field clutching handheld video links than a glass of the vermouth?

The potential of consumer m-commerce is already the subject of much excited debate by those looking to a future of mobile shopping, banking and entertainment. However, the IT industry wants to make mobile communications a significant tool for the whole manufacturing environment, used by everyone from the machine operator to the managing director.

Evangelists of mobile e-business claim we will soon see handheld computers and personal digital assistants (PDAs, such as the Psion or Palm handheld devices) emerging as more than a match for their desktop cousins for many everyday enterprise functions.

Microsoft has embraced mobility with a vengeance. From its founder Bill Gates down, the company is championing the extension of its familiar, user-friendly operating systems into the new generation of mobile devices. The company claims the internet will be the foundation of future generations of mobile manufacturing applications.

As e-business gathers pace and manufacturers move more of their enterprise systems to web-based platforms, the desire to access them on the move will rise accordingly. The internet will make it easier to share information from dissimilar systems thanks to technologies such as XML (Extensible Mark-up Language), which can give a common view of different types of data, from a simple letter to an e-business transaction.

Paul Burgum, Microsoft’s manufacturing industry manager, says XML will be key to integrating the array of disparate systems in supply chains, for instance, for ordering and invoicing.

‘It means companies can send manufacturing instructions and other information via the internet almost without regard to the type of servers and infrastructures being used,’ says Burgum. The internet browser will act as a common gateway to the new breed of mobile services.

This year, Microsoft launched its .NET strategy in a bid to bring computing and communications together to form ‘constellations’ of devices. The company has developed compact operating systems such as Windows CE, and its more recent offshoot, Pocket PC, which developers can use as a platform for creating customised devices.

This is already happening, and two packages launched earlier this year serve as signposts to the future of mobile manufacturing. In August, Arc Second introduced PocketCAD, a fully functional CAD software package for the Pocket PC which it claims is the first of its kind on the market. Running on any Windows CE 2.11 or higher powered device, the software allows users to create, view and mark up design drawings in the field – albeit on a small screen.

Another 2000 launch was RSPocketLogix from Rockwell Software, a Windows CE-based handheld package for use with Allen-Bradley programmable controllers. This is designed specifically for plant-floor maintenance and troubleshooting, and runs on a Hew lett-Packard Jornada handheld PC.

But solutions like these are just the beginning of what mobile technology can offer manufacturing. For example, a maintenance engineer faced with an unfamiliar or complex operation could access a video tutorial demonstrating the correct procedure.An alternative is videostreaming. Using a device equipped with a digital camera, the engineer could liaise with colleagues elsewhere on the site, or at other facilities anywhere in the world.

Microsoft is not the only player in the global race to lead the mobile computing revolution. Gates reportedly pinpointed Symbian – the joint venture company set up in 1998 by the UK’s Psion and several leading mobile phone manufacturers – as the greatest single threat to Microsoft’s global dominance. Symbian wants to establish itself as the global standard platform for wireless information devices, and points to enterprise applications as among its key future ‘user scenarios’.

Another major force in the market is Palm, probably the best-know global name in handheld computing, thanks to its successful range of PDAs and other portable devices. In November, Palm signed an agreement with IBM to collaborate on the delivery of mobile e-business solutions.

Mobility is also firmly on the radar of enterprise software specialists such as SAP, which in April launched mySAP.com Mobile Workplace to extend the reach of solutions such as supply chain management.However, while platform developers such as Microsoft and Palm are crucial to the advance of mobile computing, developments in two other areas are also playing a major role in making e-business on the move a reality.

The first is the development of hardware formats able to handle the powerful new software applications while remaining truly portable. Some of the biggest names in the IT world such as Compaq, Hewlett-Packard and IBM now produce handheld computers, with some models retailing for just a few hundred pounds. This makes them an attractive and affordable option for companies wishing to equip a large number of staff with mobile computing solutions.

Engineering or production environments pose special challenges to developers of mobile devices, which have to be ‘ruggedised’ to withstand harsh environments where there may be a lot of moisture, dust or vibration.

But the most important factor governing the growth of mobile e-business will be mobility itself. Fortunately, there are few areas of technology receiving as much time, money and effort as the ‘wireless revolution’. Wireless LANs (Local Area Networks) already offer to connect users across a manufacturing site via a series of base stations connected to a central server.

Also being developed is Bluetooth, the new wireless standard which eventually plans to connect an array of different devices at close range (under 10m) without the need for a cable. And one of the most keenly awaited advances is GPRS (General Packet Radio Service), allowing access to data-rich applications from mobile phones.

But will the wireless age live up to expectations? WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) – the best-known current attempt to link mobile telecoms and the internet – has often seemed like a triumph of hype over substance, and some commentators warn that technologies such as Bluetooth could suffer from the same syndrome.

Dennis Gaughan, a US-based analyst for AMR Research who follows mobile IT, believes there is plenty to get excited about already. ‘For specific job functions they are a powerful tool, and companies like Symbol are developing handheld devices specifically for industrial use,’ he says. ‘Microsoft is a strong player, and is likely to drive the market for these types of handheld applications forward.’

But Gaughan warns that manufacturers may have to be patient over some of the more ambitious visions for mobile e-business. ‘We’re still a fair way off from services like video streaming to people in the field, and from the time when everyone will be carrying these things.’