Researchers in Europe have developed a new model for collecting data across the manufacturing lifecycle and storing it all in one place. Accessing this data, prototype apps have helped to improve metrics by nearly 90% in SME advanced manufacturing trials, hinting at how apps could transform the sector.

Although consumers will pull out their phones and use apps for banking, shopping or planning a journey, businesses have tended to head in the opposite direction. They favour complex software, such as enterprise resource planning tools, to optimise their activity using the wealth of data at their disposal.

A group of EU researchers and SMEs decided it was time for a rethink. Why not embrace the advantages offered by apps and simplify monitoring, control and decision-making? The team decided to concentrate on apps for advanced manufacturing and engineering companies, especially SMEs.

“We are now in an age of mass personalisation,” explains APPS4AME Project Co-ordinator Jonathan Oesterle. “We are not looking at mass production anymore but on-demand and just-in-time manufacturing. Each customer can now order bespoke, tailor-made products. How you optimise this kind of work and deal with the growing amount of data is a real challenge.

“SMEs already struggle to handle and analyse all this data; the arrival of the Internet of Things will only make it harder. But if SMEs can’t find ways to optimise their operations they will lose competitive advantage.”

Over the course of three years, APPS4AME created a suite of more than 20 apps to support a wide range of SME manufacturing processes and factory operations. Partner SMEs have trialled the apps and evaluated how they improve business.

Before the partners could create apps, however, they needed to get all the business data into shape. The APPS4AME researchers analysed the data within the partner SMEs and compared real-world scenarios to theoretical data frameworks and models. Together, they developed an overriding data model.

“Our model is a significant breakthrough,” Oesterle claims, “because it can be applied to any advanced manufacturing or engineering firm. With only the most basic IT, any SME can now store all its data in a single, app-accessible data hub.”

With the data hub in place, the researchers were ready to build and test some apps. Four companies took part in the trials: meat processor CarmOlimp in Romania; Volkswagen parts manufacturer VW Autoeuropa in Portugal; Greek mould manufacturer Bazigos; and electrical engineering giant Siemens. These companies all reported impressive operational improvements following the introduction of pilot mobile apps.

In CarmOlimp, a new monitoring app displays data from a simple temperature sensor in the centre of a shipping pallet. Lorry drivers can check the temperature of their loads, and prove to customers that their delivery stayed chilled. Since introducing the sensor and app, CarmOlimp is able to monitor all products through to delivery. Even more impressive is the amount of time saved by CarmOlimp’s warehouse pickers. Now armed with an app rather than paper pick sheets, average picking time has dropped by 88%. The logistics planning app has cut the number of trucks and driving distances by about half.

With excellent results from all four of the pilot trials, Oesterle says no SME should be afraid to use apps of their own: “We carried out a survey of SMEs which shows they are ready to use apps for advanced manufacturing activities. We’ve shown just how powerful they can be, offering potentially huge performance improvements. Once you have a central data hub in place any IT company can develop whatever apps you need. It really is that simple. We expect apps to transform quickly how advanced SMEs in Europe do business.”