How a small manufacturer turned to the iPad
At Industrial Mold & Machine’s 29,000-square foot manufacturing facility in Twinsburg, Ohio, a wall divided computer-savvy office workers and shop floor workers unfamiliar with technology. Hence, communication between the two groups came in the form of e-mails sent from office computers to a handful of often-neglected PCs stationed around the shop floor.
The wall and lack of interaction led to a tale of two corporate cultures.
Then Apple released the iPad earlier this year. “We saw the iPad as a way to pull everybody in,” says Larry Housel, knowledge and information manager at Industrial Mold & Machine, which makes metal moldings for all sorts of products, such as plastic cups, sleds and kitchen utensils.
Housel began a project to put an iPad into the hands of every one of the company’s 37 employees, from top management to engineers to support staff to, yes, shop floor workers. The latter group could keep an iPad inside their nearby toolboxes and receive email, access the company calendar, submit vacation requests, get work assignments and tap into an employee social network called Socialtext.
So far, a third of the iPads have been rolled out.
Tip: Ride the iPad’s ease of use
Why the iPad? For starters, the iPad and its simple app icons and touch screen make adoption easier for many of the shop floor employees who are fearful of traditional PCs. “We’ve got people who don’t have a computer at home,” Housel says. “Some wouldn’t know what to do with a computer if I put one in front of them.”
One of the ways Industrial Mold & Machine tries to bridge its cultural divide is Socialtext, a kind of Facebook for the enterprise. The hope is that employees will engage with each other on the social network, which also has tools such as Wiki workspaces, microblogging, internal blogs, and social spreadsheets, that can help them collaborate and get work done.
The problem, though, is that Socialtext is accessible mainly via a browser—no iPhone app yet—and thus doesn’t render well on a smartphone’s small screen, says Housel. But the iPad’s 10-inch screen presents Socialtext just like a regular computer screen on the iPad’s Safari browser.
Tip: Create an iPad user group
Housel formed a group of various employees throughout the company to discuss how the iPad is being used, as well as any apps that people might have run across.
For instance, a group member at a recent meeting shared an app that allows users to sign PDFs. This later proved useful for Industrial Mold & Machine drivers who could sign a form on their 3G iPad, which, in turn, signals to headquarters that they had picked up or dropped off a shipment.
“You need to get feedback from the people using the iPad, because [otherwise] you’re just assuming a lot,” Housel, adding that some tasks on the iPad aren’t intuitive or understood by everyone, such as cutting and pasting.
Each member in the group is also tasked with finding ways that the iPad can improve certain processes. The goal is get rid of paper-based workflow, Housel says.
Tip: Keep pressure on vendors
The success (or failure) of an iPad project relies a lot on software vendors. Some embrace the platform wholeheartedly, committing precious resource dollars to develop a full-featured native iPad app that takes advantage of the device’s special features. Others take a wait-and-see approach. (See the vastly different approaches retailers take when developing iPhone apps in Best and Worst iPhone Retailer Apps.)
It’s important, Housel says, to push your vendors to develop for the iPad. Consider the strong odds that the next iPad will have back and front-facing cameras. This would let Industrial Mold & Machine show customers products via FaceTime video chat, among other uses.
How quickly will vendors take advantage of the iPad’s physical features? “You’ve got to look forward,” Housel says. “I don’t want to work with a company that still makes me fax over orders any more than I want a [tech vendor] tell me it’s going to be two years before a feature I want rolls out.”
[Tom Kaneshige covers Apple and Networking for CIO.com.]