Why your plant needs wearables

By Matt Powell, Associate Editor   

Industry Innovation & Technology Operations Production Electronics Manufacturing apple Cisco google Internet of Things IoT manufacturing smartwatches wearable technologies wearables

Hokey? Maybe. An opportunity for manufacturers? Definitely



It’s a high-tech world we live in. We’re glued to smartphones, tablets and the like, in a sharing economy that keep us connected in a digital world that is, believe it or not, only in its infancy.

The internet has changed the way people communicate and the way businesses communicate with their customers. And the so-called Internet of Things (IoT) will usher in the next generation of connectivity, a shift to which manufacturers should be playing close attention.

As IoT continues to evolve, it promises to connect more people, data and “things” and deliver more valuable information to both consumers and enterprises, while closing the gap between the two.

For manufacturers, that means having the ability to better control networks and improve equipment assets, situation management and process control. IoT intelligent systems will speed up the deployment of new products, provide dynamic response to demand, and enable real-time supply chain optimization by bringing together networking machinery, sensors and control systems.


Much has been made of the phenomenon. Global networking giant Cisco estimates IoT will drive net profits of $3.9 trillion to the global manufacturing sector over the next decade ($100 billion in Canada).

Research firm IDC, based in Toronto, says Canadian companies will spend $21 billion on such projects in 2018, up from $5.6 billion in 2014 – a 375% increase. And General Electric says internet-connected machines could add $15 trillion to global GDP by boosting annual productivity growth up to 1.5% in the US.

Like most disruptive digital technologies that take hold in the consumer world before making inroads into industry, wearables will provide manufacturers with an unlikely tool to harness IoT’s power through of the massive amounts of data these systems will collect. Shop floor workers will connect with machinery in more personal, job-specific ways to acquire relevant, real-time data when they need it most.

Research firm Strategy Analytics predicts an incredible surge in the wearables sector, with global revenues to reach $37 billion in 2020, up from $1 billion in 2014. Juniper Research predicts shipments of wearable devices will reach 130 million units by 2018.

The factory floor is an ideal and safer application for wearables, keeping a worker’s eyes and hands on the machine and off a phone or tablet display.

Recon Instruments, based in Vancouver and founded in 2008, has developed the Recon Jet, a sleek yet heavy-duty smartglass that pushes and pulls data, tasks and instructions from various points across an operation to specific users. The devices allow voice and touch control, and are equipped with a camera that reads labels and barcodes.

And Nashville-based XOEye Technologies’ stripped down, industrialized XOne smartglasses are designed for harsh manufacturing environments.

They aren’t slick looking, but they are lightweight and certified for everyday factory hazards and provide users with high-tech features including barcode scanning, video and audio telepresence with cloud-based servers, and biometrics tracking, which can discover and resolve workflow issues.

Big possibilities
Exact Online, based in Waltham, Mass., a developer of cloud software for small manufacturers and wholesale distributors that automates workflows, suggests manufacturers will use wearables in:

Video applications. Companies that use cameras to monitor the shop floor or employees could apply a hands-free, first person point-of-view wearable that includes a camera. Users would stream video in real-time and save the content for later reference.

Employee monitoring. Shop floor safety would be enhanced by keeping track of what’s going on with employees. Smartbands or smartwatches would allow supervisors to see that somewhere along a production line, productivity is being affected by fatigued workers. Monitoring their work rate or body for fatigue could help manufacturers improve productivity by changing break schedules to reduce shop floor injuries.

Digital strategy and product-design tool and services provider Solstice Mobile, based in Chicago, believes wearables will impact manufacturers by:

Enhancing field service. Functions such as maintenance that require workers to work at heights or underground could use wearables to collaborate with managers and speed up decision making. There is also access to online support to resolve problems faster.

Remote line monitoring. Wearables reduce the need for workers to be tied to their machines for hours. Plants would gather line speed or machine component failure data remotely.

Warehouse monitoring. Sensors, smartwatches and smartglasses would enable anyone working in a warehouse to easily locate stored goods and maintain inventory at the tap of a finger, saving time and reducing misplacement and downtime.

Employee training. Improve training by encouraging workers to learn on the shop floor. There’s also a case for workers accessing learning material on the move anytime, anywhere.

Integrating wearables into the workplace will also play a critical role in attracting your future workforce, says Cisco. The tech giant, which is leading the global IoT charge, suggests more Millennials believe a wearable device will be an important part of the workplace by 2020. Millennials now make up 75% of the US workforce and will continue to supplant retiring Baby Boombers and Gen-Xers.

Don’t get too caught up in the high-tech chatter. Wearables aren’t a fad, they’re going to be a major disruptor that will simplify their integration and help manufacturers harness IoT’s power.

This article appears in the July/August 2015 issue of PLANT.


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