How wearables will change the face of industry

10 Apr 2017

Consumer wearables have hogged most of the limelight, but wearable devices are making industrial work environments safer and more efficient.

As far as wearables go, smart watches and fitness trackers have become everyday accessories of the savvy and health conscious. Less well-known, however, are their industrial cousins which have the potential to make workplaces safer, more efficient, and more intelligent.

From smart glasses – such as Google Glass –for technical staff who might need to control machines or production lines remotely, to wearable trackers providing mobility and tracking features for emergency workers, wearables are making their way into our workplaces. Virtually any worker who requires data at his fingertips – whether in medicine, emergency services, manufacturing or even the media – can benefit from the use of such devices.

Indeed, the world looks poised for a boom in wearables at work: a report by PwC states that by 2020, over 75 million wearable devices will be used at the workplace. Separately, Gartner Research estimates that by 2018, 2 million employees will be required to wear health and fitness tracking devices as a condition for employment.

In particular, interest in industrial wearables is significantly increasing. Research firm Tractica projects that yearly worldwide shipments for enterprise and industrial wearables will exponentially increase from 2.3 million in 2015 to 66.4 million units by 2021.

While little is known about how widespread the adoption of such devices is in the industrial context, experts say take-up so far has been limited, largely due to the technology being relatively new. Annette Zimmermann, an analyst with Gartner, told the Financial Times that though wearables in hazardous environments are “quite real” today, we are “nowhere near blanket adoption yet”.

Tractica’s research director Aditya Kaul added: “In the past year, the enterprise and industrial wearables market has moved into an implementation phase, with the focus shifting from public announcements to the hard work that needs to be done behind the scenes to get wearables rolled out at commercial scale.”

The potential of industrial wearables

Still, despite a quiet 2016, companies in the business of manufacturing wearables continue to see a massive opportunity as wearables have the potential to improve industrial workplaces in the areas of safety, efficiency, and training.

According to data from the International Labor Organization (ILO), 321,000 people around the world die every year in industrial accidents – a grim figure which suggests the need for equipment to improve workplace safety.

India’s Tata Group has responded to this need, announcing recently that it had developed a watch exclusively for factory workers, providing critical real-time data which could be a boon for occupational safety. Aside from functioning as a watch, the device provides real-time data such as a worker’s body temperature, pulse rate and alerts on excessive gases in the environment – features that could be valuable for workers who often have to toil under hazardous work conditions.

Wearables manufacturer Redpoint Positioning has also developed a safety vest with GPS capabilities, which enables construction workers to call for assistance onsite – and be located with ease. Alerts are also sent out whenever workers enter pre-designated danger zones so appropriate action can be taken.

Safety aside, industrial wearables also give workers a productivity boost. Wearables manufacturer Vuzix, armed with a US$24.8 million investment from Intel, has developed smart glasses designed for warehouse workers. The glasses track workers within a warehouse, and include optical data-capture and voice-recognition technologies. Such devices eliminate the need for handheld scanners, allowing warehouse workers to interact directly with warehouse-management software.

Training programmes will also benefit from the use of wearables, which improve connectivity and allow the use of simulated environments. General Electric’s Smart Helmets, for example, connect field engineers to more experienced engineers who guide them through complex tasks via audio and video.

Human Condition Safety’s SafeScan device, on the other hand, leverages virtual reality technology to improve worker training. Novice engineers can participate in safety training via a fully-immersive virtual reality platform, honing their skills before using them in potentially hazardous work environments.

Not surprisingly, the benefits of industrial wearable technology have resulted in more firms trying them out. In Singapore, electricity and gas provider Singapore Power conducted a four-month trial, where employees used wearables at work. This allowed supervisors to each oversee 10 engineers at locations such as electrical substations in housing estates. A SP spokesman said wearables were being tested so its field staff could try performing their tasks hands-free.

In the United States, Construction firm Skanska ran trials of the Redpoint safety vest at a project in Boston. Its senior vice president Tony Colonna told ENR that the benefits of the system included being able to monitor people relative to equipment, and keep them out of danger zones. In addition, the system also provided real-time feedback such as how much real manpower was being delivered to different areas on the construction site.

Leaner businesses

Collectively, such benefits could help businesses save a lot of money in the long term. According to the United States Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), employers pay almost US$1 billion per work in direct worker compensation costs – a figure which could potentially be reduced by making industrial workplaces safer.

More efficient workplaces are naturally leaner, too, as companies are able to scale back on unnecessary staff and equipment. 4D training environments delivered through wearables also have the potential to reduce training time substantially, resulting in cost reductions in terms of lost work hours.

While industrial wearable technologies are still relatively nascent, it seems only a matter of time before they become ubiquitous – and those who are quick to adopt it will only stand to gain.