The trend toward tablets

John R. Henry

March 11, 2015

7 Min Read
The trend toward tablets

Modern plants swim in a sea of paper. Documents used on the packaging line include production orders, bills of material, operating and maintenance manuals, cleaning and setup SOPs (standard operating procedures) and more. Managers have long faced a tough choice trying to balance access and control.

Keeping these documents up to date can be a daunting task. Some companies try to ease this task by limiting the number of copies in use. In extreme cases, the only copies will be in the supervisor's or manager's offices. This makes them easy, or at least easier, to control but leads to another problem.

Quality, the absence of variation, means that everyone in the plant performs every task exactly the same way. Often called "standardized work," this requires that everyone work from the same documents and they can't do this without access. To provide access, multiple copies may be spread around the plant leading to difficulty keeping them current. Worse, it leads to bootleg or unauthorized copies. The more copies that are in circulation, the more likely it is that some of them will be the wrong copies. Wrong copies will lead to production errors or worse.

Sovena USA has 10 packaging lines in Rome, NY, producing more than 800 stock-keeping units (SKUs) of olive oil for its private-label customers. Each line had at least 40 binders of information that needed to be accessed daily.

Plant manager Steve Barnes and IT manager Frank Talarico thought there must be a better way. They moved all the paper to Apple iPads.

All the data from the binders is now maintained centrally. They use the app Documents To Go from DataViz Inc. to push any changes in the files out to iPads on each line, keeping everything synchronized. An alternative approach would keep all files on the central server and access them as needed over the network. One drawback to this is the delay needed to download the document each time it is to be used. Maintaining them on the iPad avoids this, as well as any other potential network problems. All files are read-only PDFs, which eliminates the chance of unauthorized changes by users on the floor. Tables of contents, hyperlinks from product names and part numbers-as well as general search functions-make finding information across multiple documents easy.

Payback was immediate. The basic cost of the iPad was about the same as what Sovena was spending on the binders and the paper that filled them. More significant was the cost of maintaining the binders, time spent looking up information and the potential liability of incorrect or outdated information. Most importantly, ease of access by the operators to the information increases the probability that the information will be used.

The PDF format allows documents to be set as non-printable, which is useful for sensitive documents. In other cases, such as a setup chart, paper copies may be handier and the file can be set to allow this. The problem of bootleg documents can be eliminated by automatically time stamping each document "VOID AFTER (time/date)" where (time/date) is 24 hours after printing. Documents are shredded after use.

The iPad by itself is not really designed for industrial use and may not stand up on the floor. Fortunately, heavy duty rubberized cases and clear screen covers provide the needed protection.

Show me

Tablets and other devices can do double duty as training aids with videos. R.A. Jones has demonstrated Apple iPods loaded with video providing step-by-step machine setup instructions. The iPod is worn on the arm and a wireless bluetooth headset provides the audio.

World's Finest Chocolate, a Chicago candy maker, has also adopted iPads on the plant floor. In a brief video at the Chicago Tribune website (, technician Jose Vargas and operator Audra Lee explain how this has made both of them more effective.

Haver Filling Systems has developed a nifty wrinkle on the iPad. It uses custom tablets optimized for its bag filling machinery. This not only allows the technician to have all the information in the palm of their hand, it also calls home. When a problem arises that the plant technician cannot resolve, the tablet allows them to video-conference with a Haver factory technician. If parts are needed, the plant technician can verify that they are in stock and order them directly from the tablet. This allows them to get back up and running as soon as possible.

On a screen near you...
Operators are not the only ones who need information. Managers need it too. They need to know when the line is running and how well. They need to know when it is stopped and why. For this information to be useful, they need it in real time. Getting yesterday's performance data tomorrow, just won't cut the mustard anymore.


Line monitoring systems can provide this real time information. They run the gamut from simple to sophisticated.


At the simpler end of the scale, sensor-based systems can provide a surprising amount of information. The Productivity Appliance from Vorne Industries uses one sensor, typically a photoeye, to count the number and rate of empty bottles entering the line. A second sensor counts finished bottles. Based on these two sensors, the system can collect, display and report a number of key metrics including line speed, total, reject and good counts, OEE (Overall Equipment Efficiency), downtime, standby time and more.


The Vorne system programming allows "reason" codes to be assigned for downtime and other events. These are printed out as a sheet of barcodes. When the line goes down-no bottles passing the photoeye, for example-the screen goes into a downtime display. The operator then scans the appropriate barcode—such as capper jam or out of labels. The cause of the downtime is displayed and the event and its duration are recorded for later reporting.


More sophisticated systems take multiple inputs directly from each machine's PLC, allowing collection of detailed machine level data. Any parameter that can be measured-including throughput, temperature, vibration and more-can be monitored and tied into other functions such as predictive or preventive maintenance.


Whether sensor or PLC, web-based systems are the way to go. The monitoring system's server is connected to the plant's internal network. It can then be accessed from anywhere using any PC, laptop, tablet or smartphone using any standard browser, such as Firefox.


Raw data is great for a performance snapshot but any system must include reporting functions that allow managers to slice and dice the data however they need it. This allows performance comparison between shifts, products, lines and plants over time.


Good information goes a long way to improving packaging line productivity but nothing is perfect. So what to do when an incident does occur?


Push-notification systems warn when the line is underperforming by sending a text message, voicemail, page or other communication to the appropriate person.


Smart systems can have multiple levels of notification. The initial assumption when a machine stops may be that the operator will get it running again. If it is still down after five minutes, the system will notify the appropriate technician. If after 15 minutes it is still down, the system will notify the packaging manager.


Every technician and manager should carry an iPhone or Android smartphone. The bigger the screen the better, as this allows them to call up manuals, pictures, diagrams and other documents while at the machine. The phone's camera allows them to take snapshots or videos that are always helpful in describing a situation.


Some plants have converted their internal phone systems to VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol). Think Skype on steroids. VOIP systems can allow the use of smartphones over wi-fi without the need for cellular calling plans.


Smartphones have several advantages over walkie-talkies. First, communication will generally be clearer with less static than a walkie-talkie. Second, text can be used in addition to or instead of voice, leading to better communication. It is sometimes difficult to get two people on the phone at the same time. The asymetric nature of text messaging and email eliminates this issue.


Moore's law tells us that the capabilities of the electronic devices above will double about every 18 months. Sometimes that seems pessimistic. Much of the technology in this article was the stuff of science fiction as little as 10 years ago. Modern manufacturing relies on communication and information. The world class company will be the one that makes the best use of it.


Known as the Changeover Wizard, John Henry is the owner of, a consulting firm that helps companies find and fix the causes of inefficiencies in their packaging operations. He has written the book, literally, on packaging machinery ( and is the face and personality behind packaging detective KC Boxbottom, the main character in Adventures in Packaging, a popular blog on

DataViz Inc., 203-874-0085

Haver Filling Systems, 888-964-2837

R.A. Jones, 563-391-1100

Vorne Industries, 877-767-5326


About the Author(s)

John R. Henry

Known as the Changeover Wizard, John R. Henry is the owner of, a consulting firm that helps companies find and fix the causes of inefficiencies in their packaging operations. He has written the book, literally, on packaging machinery ( and is the face and personality behind packaging detective KC Boxbottom, the main character in popular articles on the Packaging Digest website. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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