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3 ways wearables in manufacturing will transform shop floors

Jason Prater Profile picture for user Jason Prater July 21, 2015
Wearables in manufacturing will transform shop floor activities such as training, safety and transparency, writes Plex Systems' Jason Prater.

Jason Prater, VP of development, Plex Systems 250px
Jason Prater, Plex Systems

Feeling skeptical that wearable technology will ever catch on in manufacturing shops? So are many of the respondents to a recent study we conducted at Plex.

Some 35 percent of our respondents said smart glasses are overhyped.

But 36 percent said they’re likely to incorporate smart glasses such as Google Glass into their technology portfolio in the next five years.

And when you consider that 93 percent of survey respondents use consumer tablets in their manufacturing operations, 80 percent say they incorporate consumer mobile devices, 48 percent already use sensors, and 27 percent use low-power Bluetooth, it’s obvious that today’s manufacturers are eager to deploy modern devices in ways that help people and machines team up to get more done.

In the past, seeing PCs all along the shop floor used to be a surefire sign that a manufacturing operation was cutting-edge. Soon enough, seeing all those boxes will be a dead giveaway that a shop is behind the times. All the forward-thinking manufacturers will be deploying wearable technology to their line workers, rendering their desktop computers obsolete. In fact, wearable computing devices are changing manufacturing forever. Here are the three areas where you’ll notice the biggest difference.

#1: Training is faster and better

If you’ve ever hired people for manufacturing jobs, you know that new employees face a potential roadblock to productivity: the computer. No matter how computer savvy your new hires may be, they’ll still need to learn the software applications you use for recording work hours, entering data about new shipments of supplies, and reporting product defects.

Wearables eliminate the time and expense of teaching new line workers how to navigate software. To put it simply, wearables do the logging on for your staff, as well as a great deal of the data entry.

Think of what that means: you can now hire a new employee, set them up with wearable technology that talks to your machines and computers, and deploy them on your assembly line as not only a productive worker, but also a data collection agent. And because they won’t be constantly running to a computer to punch in data, your new hire will get much more done.

Plex manufacturing customer Fisher Dynamics using Google Glass on shop floor
Let’s picture how this might work: You equip your warehouse staff with digital finger pointing devices and Google Glass. The pointers allow them to point to any box and see barcode data about its contents displayed on their Google Glass. This will not only eliminate the need for them to open boxes and examine the contents, but also enable them to record data on new shipments in a fraction of the time.

There was a time when you could hire new line workers based on their skill, not their computer savvy. That day is here again. Wearables let assembly line staff focus on what they do best.

#2: Safety issues disappear

We’ve all seen the signs: “34 Days Since Our Last Accident.”

Soon, we won’t need those signs at all. Wearables will make workplaces virtually accident-proof by overriding the worst human judgment.

Picture this: you require all your warehouse staff to wear a (yet-to-be invented) smartvest. If a forklift driver is rounding a corner and doesn’t realize another worker is standing there, no problem. His smartvest will beep an alarm code that signals him to slow down and be alert.

That’s Version 1.0, of course. Version 2.0 will actually interact with the forklift’s controls and apply the brakes when a collision with a human is imminent.

Wearables are doing much more than that to promote safety on the manufacturing shop floor. Because they’re on people at all times, they help management gather data on the speed at which workers are traveling — so that the one forklift driver who consistently drives too fast can be corrected. Wearables also let management gather data about how workers are spending their time on the shop floor and what safety hazards they’re exposed to on a daily basis.

The benefits extend to customer safety, too. Imagine a sensor that electronics manufacturing workers can wear on one finger and touch to an electronic component to make sure it has been welded at the correct temperature. The temperature data would automatically be transmitted to the cloud, where the company’s management could then monitor product quality in real time. These are the kinds of innovations that are already emerging onto the market.

#3: People and machines communicate as equals

Wearables do more than minimize your training requirements, save time for line workers, and help prevent accidents. They also let people and machines communicate with no barriers.

A warehouse worker points to a box with a digital pointer and sees its contents on Google Glass without opening it. A line worker wearing sensors on his hands touches a finished product to measure its size and shape and verify that it meets specifications. Another line worker points to a machine to see data on Google Glass about the machine’s speed, temperature, efficiency, and maintenance history.

Workers share all this data with their peers who may be affected by it — without leaving the shop floor. And all of this data is stored in the cloud for real-time or future analysis.

It’s as if our manufacturing workers are walking around trailing ones and zeroes.

Decision-makers crave those ones and zeroes. Whether it’s generated by a machine or by a human, data is what drives every strategic business decision today. The more data, the better.

By wearing technology to work every day, today’s manufacturing workers collect the Big Data that gives their companies their competitive advantage. We’ll explore that concept in our next article.

Image credits: Plex Systems.

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