The Wearable Revolution on the Factory Floor

Wearable technology has already entered our daily lives in the form of sports watches, smart jewelry, medical devices and head-mounted displays.

What about wearable technology on the factory floor?  

The idea of using wearables at work is certainly not a new one. For example, Boeing introduced heads-up displays in the 90s, so pilots did not have to look down checking critical data during flights. In addition to that, Boeing took advantage of wearables for providing instructions to engineers, putting an end to the use of  paper manuals. Although there were breakthroughs, wearables were never fully integrated on the factory floor.

What changed? The arrival of Industry 4.0 paired with lower hardware prices and longer battery life made wearables a natural choice. Half of manufacturers are to adopt wearable technology by 2022. In other words, the connected factory of the future starts becoming a reality. A recent study conducted by Zebra Technologies Corporation confirms the rise of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT):

“The results of Zebra’s 2017 Manufacturing Vision Study prove that IIoT has crossed the chasm, and savvy manufacturers are investing aggressively in technologies that will create a smarter, more connected plant floor to achieve greater operational visibility and enhance quality.”

Are wearables really that beneficial on the shop floor? Let’s have a look at three concrete examples.

Efficiency at work – the forklift operator

Safety is extremely important for anyone who works in manufacturing. In the U.S. it is estimated that the cost of forklift accidents amounts to over $135 million per year. That’s why it is essential that the wearables used by forklift operators are not intrusive and do not cause too much distraction. Smartwatches can be a good option in this case.

Forklift operators still use paper manuals to transfer assets in the warehouse which can be outdated at times. Workers also need to get off and on the forklift for barcode scanning. These processes are far from efficient and lead to unnecessary loss of time and money.  Smartwatches, as mentioned above, can improve the productivity of forklift operators.

For example, using a checklist on the smartwatch and updating the asset information in real-time is beneficial for warehouse efficiency. Using a wearable device may also result in scanning barcodes with a wrist-worn device, e.g. for picking application by using a picking app on a smartwatch. Additionally, forklift operators can report missing material and other discrepancies in real-time which leads to quickly assigning asset orders to others.

In the case of on-demand replenishment, resupply can be ordered with the click of a button using a smartwatch. Orders get directly assigned to the relevant workers, for example, the forklift operator gets a notification on the smartwatch in real time. Thus downtime between transport orders is minimized.

Workers in high-risk environments

In some cases, workers perform their daily tasks in high-risk environments, for example, in the mining, chemical, and construction industry. That’s why it is of high importance to monitor the workers to prevent any work-related injuries. There are various options to improve on-site safety by using wearables.

Let’s take smart clothes as an example. “Smart clothes are garments such as shirts, pants, socks, and shoes with an embedded computing device that monitors health statistics such as heart rate, respiration, skin temperature, and oxygen saturation.” How are they beneficial on the shop floor? Smart clothes can monitor vital body signs and send the data to an IIoT backend. In case of an accident, tracking the location of the worker via wearable sensors makes it easier to locate her and react as fast as possible.

What about tasks that need to be performed in hazardous areas for the first time? It is less risky when using wearable devices. Virtual reality simulations can be used for training purposes in safe conditions. The Human Conditions Safety lab has brought a SafeScan training to the market using a VR headset: “For example, a worker might virtually practice unloading a beam from a crane 20 stories in the air on a foggy morning, instead of doing it for the first time in real life.”

There are cases when an immediate action needs to be taken in case of an accident. Every second counts to save a worker’s life. A smartwatch, for example, can be used to place a call in a case of emergency. A worker can also call support if help is needed in relation to another issue.

Ergonomics at work

The well-being of the workers can also affect their productivity and job satisfaction. Wearable technology can improve ergonomics and comfort at the workplace. A company called Noonee invented an unusual wearable – the chairless chair. It can be worn at any point – walking as well as standing –  it turns into a chair on command. The chairless chair brings benefits like better posture and higher comfort, especially in the case of workers who need to stand the whole day.

The future belongs to wearable tech. New concepts are evolving and a huge change is taking place. The prediction is that more than 75 million wearable devices are to be deployed in enterprise and industrial environments by 2020 (fig 1).

Figure 1: Enterprise and Industrial Wearable Shipments and Revenue, World Markets: 2013-2020. Source: Tractica

Benefits outweigh costs. The 2018 Zebra Manufacturing Vision Study further confirms it: “The benefits that come from having a fully connected factory that communicates in real time with the supply chain far outweigh the costs and contribute greatly to maintaining a competitive edge.”  

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