Wearable technology is finding its way into the manufacturing mainstream, elevating worker safety and productivity
The industrial sector apparently is undergoing a wardrobe makeover. By 2024,
Research and Markets projects that the global market for industrial wearable devices will reach $2.78 billion annually, up from $1.64 billion in 2018, as companies invest in new technologies to increase workplace productivity, safety and efficiency.
From RFID (radio-frequency identification)-equipped hard hats and smart glasses to personal protective equipment (PPE) and, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, technologies such as full-body exoskeletons, Industrial Internet of Things-connected wearable devices are becoming an integral part of the working environment across the manufacturing landscape, in applications ranging from mining to construction to steel production and beyond.
In the steel industry, for example, the Russia-based steel manufacturer NLMK Group is using a 3D positioning system for shop floor employees at one of its hot-dip galvanizing mills, a particularly risk-laden part of its operation where workers are exposed to hazardous chemicals, hot metals and the like. Deployed with an eye toward preventing accidents, reducing safety risks and improving overall operational efficiency, the positioning system tracks employee location in real-time, along with asset and machine condition. Workers carry a wearable sensor tag that tracks locations, unusual behavior, immobility, falls, abrupt changes in body position, etc. The tag also enables bidirectional communication, so a worker can call for help via a button on the tag, and the tag can vibrate to alert workers in a dangerous zone. Meanwhile, data collected by the tag streams into a central digital platform, which reports back to managers in real time via dashboard-based digital displays that give them a complete picture of what's happening in the work environment.
Powered by a real-time location system (RTLS), an ultra-wide-band (UWB) positioning system, 3D imaging technology and LoRaWan wireless communication technology, the cloud-based NLMK system highlights several key factors driving the manufacturing sector's increased investment in wearable technology:
1. Safety/accident prevention. Wearable technology looks especially promising in worker safety-related applications, for its ability to detect potentially hazardous conditions in real time, and alert workers to avoid certain dangerous areas. In outdoor scenarios where workers are connected to a cloud-based external monitoring system via a GPS-enabled wearable device (GPS doesn't work indoors), safety managers can use a mobile or web-based application to remotely track workers' movements and location. At NMLK, each worker has dedicated "safe zones" within which they are safely allowed to move. An alert is triggered when someone moves outside the allowed zone. And as NMLK is doing, a manufacturer can collect and analyze data on worker movements and conditions in the work environment to proactively identify and address operational health and safety (OHS) risks before they become an issue.
From RFID-embedded hard hats to smart watches, goggles, clothing and footwear, sensor-equipped wearables can enable a manufacturer to monitor an employee's vital signs (heart rate, body temperature, etc.) and/or actions to detect issues such as fatigue and stress. They also can monitor conditions in the work environment, including temperature, vibration, gas concentrations and ventilation in a mine or a location where hazardous gases could be present, for example. If the monitoring system connected to these wearable IIoT sensors detects a potential safety risk or danger, it can promptly send an alert to the appropriate workers or line managers. Similarly, wearable technology embedded into personal protective equipment can reinforce geofencing, sending an alert to prevent an employee from entering a restricted "fenced" area. This capability is valuable not only within manufacturing operations but also at places like construction sites, where risks tend to lurk.
2. Efficiency and productivity gains. The data collected from sensor-equipped, IIoT-connected wearable technology can provide manufacturers with clearer, timelier insight into equipment operation, workflow/process and worker deployment within the manufacturing environment. NLMK's 3-D tracking system enables real-time tracking and analysis of equipment operating modes. It also is helping the company to deploy its workforce, including contractors, more efficiently across the production operation.
By analyzing wearable-generated data, a manufacturer can gain the insight it needs to optimize how its production assets and people are deployed to execute a specific process or make a certain product.
Also, amid harsh conditions like those found in a steel manufacturing operation - high temperatures, strong vibrations - a camera-equipped wearable such as a hardhat could send images of a specific manufacturing asset to a central digital system, which in turn could employ machine learning-powered image classification to detect potential issues with that piece of equipment, so the manufacturer can address the issue before it escalates into a full-blown production disruption.
The same type of image analysis could be used in a quality assurance context, whereby the image classification tool could quickly analyze vast numbers of images to identify a potential product quality issue before it escalates.
3. Real-time communication with workers. The sensor tag that employees on the NLMK galvanizing line wear allows for the kind of real-time bidirectional communication that is essential for wearable technology in a manufacturing environment. Not only can two-way communication provide timely alerts to at-risk or endangered workers in a pinch, it can remotely feed information to employees so they can go about troubleshooting, maintenance, and other work more efficiently. Smart glasses with augmented reality could provide instruction to an employee for a complex assembly or repair, or, if the situation demands it, remotely guide a worker through an unfamiliar process.
As promising as wearable technologies are for their ability to bolster worker safety, communications and operational efficiency, and for all the lofty multi-billion-dollar market projections about the industrial inroads these technologies soon could make, the manufacturing sector has yet to fully embrace them, chiefly for practical reasons. There are still questions about their durability and suitability for industrial applications, for one. There are also questions about connectivity. What happens if a wearable device being used to protect the safety of workers loses connectivity at a critical moment?
Before too long, device manufacturers and digital infrastructure developers likely will have answers to those questions.
PS: Putting Wearables to Work During a Health Crisis A 3-D positioning system that tracks workers' movements within a facility could prove to be a valuable tool to help a manufacturer keep its employees healthy and prevent the spread of illness within a workforce. By equipping workers with wearable tags or FitBit-like devices, such a system could enable a company to reinforce physical distancing guidelines between employees, and to track whom came into contact with whom, when and where. Wearables equipped with sensors that monitor workers' vital signs could also identify potential early signs of illness in employees.
Alfred Becker, SAP SE, Global Lead for Paper and Packaging
When I was accepted into Miami University (Oxford, Ohio, USA) in 1982, the school told me that before I even arrived on campus that I had homework. I was instructed to read "The Third Wave" by futurist Alvin Toffler and to be prepared to discuss it during freshman orientation. The book predicted the future of economics, politics, industry, and other social and global attributes.
I do not profess to have powers of prognostication to compare to Toffler, but in this article I am going to make some guesses about where we are on the Industry 4.0 evolution and how the current unfortunate experience with the COVID-19 virus may influence industry and automation after the recovery we are all anxious to see.
It was only a month ago that I attended an ISA leadership conference in Austin, Texas. We were using elbow bumps in place of handshakes to avoid contributing to contagion. At that time, I did not predict that mitigating efforts would escalate to cancelations of gatherings of any kind. While we were gathered with caution, I heard one of the members state that Industry 4.0 is in the past and that technology has already gone past the 4th era of industry. Others were very skeptical of such a claim. I can say for certain that there are many industrial facilities that have not reached Industry 4.0. Certainly, there are industries and facilities that differ in their adoption of technology. It is interesting to note that in earlier industrial era transitions (muscle to steam in Industry 1, to electricity in Industry 2, to digitalization in Industry 3) the adoption was rather universal through industry. Again, some industries and facilities adopted faster than others, but generally speaking everyone adopted these advances. At this stage it is hard to tell what the adoption rate of Industry 4.0 is, and it is nearly impossible to determine given that Industry 4.0 compliance is not defined, not even by the German ministry that created the term. However, it is logical to conclude that a Post-COVID industry will make Internet connectivity and remote monitoring of industrial facilities a non-discretionary requirement.
Fortunately, there are prognosticators at ARC, the advisory group that researches trends in industrial automation. A recent interview on the Control Amplified podcast featured ARC experts Craig Resnick and Larry O'Brien discussing the early impacts of COVID-19 on the process industries. Some takeaways from the interview are:
There is a mix of surge and slowdown in industrial production depending on the industry. In the paper industry, the hygiene and packaging demand is sky high. However, many capital projects have stopped, so system integration work has been impacted. I have personally been impacted.
This condition, as I mentioned above, is creating higher incentive for connectivity and remote monitoring. Adoption is now mandatory.
Therefore, many producers are now in the perfect place to be planning Industry 4.0 projects to begin when the recovery happens. There could be a surge in adoption of the latest technology.
ARC stated that remote connectivity and edge processing projects can be completed rather instantaneously without the high cost and complexity of a control system installation/upgrade. However, I have cautioned in past articles about overlooking the infrastructure requirements. Building a castle on a shaky foundation can lead to collapse; without a thorough accounting for security and bandwidth a remote connection project can lead to disastrous intrusions and communication failure.
Therefore, it appears that the lull in industrial automation work today will accumulate in pent up demand that surges project activity later in the year, resulting in an acceleration of technological evolution. By this time next year, we may have near universal adoption of Industry 4.0 (depending on how we define Industry 4.0 compliance).
While this addresses the future of industry, one may wonder what automation can do to the future of pandemics. Can automation help the next time a new virus threatens us?
In a prior article I referred to futurist Ray Kurzweil. In his book "The Singularity is Near" he makes many predictions about the impact of Artificial Intelligence and automation, including the prediction that nanobots in our bloodstream could give us smarter white blood cells. He refers to Robert A Freitas who has designed "robotic replacements for human blood cells that perform hundreds or thousands of times more effectively than their biological counterparts." Of these robotic blood cells, Kurzweil says that "robotic macrophages called "microbivores" will be far more effective than our white blood cells at combating pathogens." While biological automation is far outside my core competency, I cannot help but wonder how widely my engineering discipline can impact the future.
I will not be so bold as Toffler to author the next wave, but it is clear to me that the post COVID-19 era will be an inflection point in many ways. In our realm, it may be the widespread adoption of Industry 4.0 or perhaps a jump to Industry 5.0, whatever that may be. At the moment, I will focus on defining Industry 4.0, which does not require as much prognostication. I suggest we all include this in our homework.
Pat Dixon, PE, PMP, is president of www.DPAS-INC.com, offering project management and engineering for industrial automation projects.
"Sedentary" and "not Inactive" normally are considered mutually exclusive concepts. We have all learned in the last five or six weeks that sedentary has become a career lifestyle but it certainly does not mean we need to be inactive. I don't know if you would consider Paperitalo Publications to be fully "Industry 4.O compliant" (See Pat Dixon's article above), but I can tell you that we have not missed a beat since the Covid-19 isolation started. I think this will soon be the goal of all enterprises as they move further into their Industry 4.0 adoption post virus isolation.
We expect this period of isolation will be a very strong driver in industry in the near and far future. Even years from now, industries will be designing their work activities to accommodate isolation, just in case. As companies learn to do this routinely, they will find some great advantages, such as the ability to almost effortlessly draw in expertise near instantaneously no matter where it is.
My wife, for instance, works for an international standards organization, right here from our home. She previously worked for such an organization based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Now she works for one in Houston, Texas. Yet her office has never moved, it is right here in our home in Georgia. All the while, she often hosts collaborative meetings with principals as far flung as Singapore, Berlin and Sydney and Seattle simultaneously. This means some folks may have gotten up early or others gone to bed late, but it is a fast and inexpensive way to gather key personnel for important discussions.
As for us at Paperitalo Publications, we are indeed active, in fact more active than we were before. It appears, for whatever reason, we are on the cusp of the transformation, a position often familiar to us in our fifteen years at Paperitalo Publications. It is our goal to continue to lead.
New tools and methods linked to the CMMS are capable of measuring maintenance activities in minute detail and how they affect equipment reliability. Maintenance 4.0 is in its infancy, so some industries and CMMS providers are sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what happens. The average manufacturing plant misses 17 days of production every year, costing millions of dollars in lost revenue. The risk of not pursuing Maintenance 4.0 is far greater than the risk of waiting.
Managing the cultural impact of Industry 4.0 in manufacturing
By following these six steps the manufacturing industry will bring the whole business along for the digital transformation ride and ensure that Industry 4.0 is a success. Having a clear change management and implementation strategy will enable businesses to realize the full value of technology, whilst guaranteeing strong ROI and user acceptance.
We are all dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic in our own ways, but struggles for members of the manufacturing community share similarities. With that in mind, we solicited insights on a few topics from a broad spectrum of industry stakeholders in order to provide perspectives that can help you navigate this unprecedented period.
Five Characteristics Reshaping Manufacturing
Manufacturers face a number of challenges. Whether it's market volatility, supply chain risk, finding value in data, rising customer expectations, or serious skill shortages, the entire industry is feeling the crunch. How can modernizing your operation with a connected manufacturing strategy help you grow?