The potential for wearables has traditionally been associated with consumer applications, such as fitness trackers and smartwatches. However, it is the potential of enterprise applications that could rival consumer and health applications by offering a multitude of benefits to companies and people working in oil & gas, utilities, mining, manufacturing, logistics, transportation, and construction industries.

Augmented reality (AR) glasses, exoskeletons, hearables, & biometric sensors are empowering the industrial blue collar workforce by giving them enhanced physical and cognitive abilities. These new abilities will substantially increase worker effectiveness and offer a viable cost/return alternative to fully automated solutions in many cases. Sarcos Robotics, a manufacturer of smart exoskeletons, captures it nicely by describing it as, ‘human intelligence, instinct, and judgment combined with robotic strength, endurance, and precision.’

Examples emerging in the market today not only have the potential to substantially reduce costs associated with unplanned downtime, injury and training; they will also safeguard the health and safety of the workforce from the dangers of working in hazardous environments. 

Thus, while it’s a market still in its infancy, Industrial wearables are not only good for business, they are also good for people’s lives. 

Here are just a few examples of how we see wearable technology currently being used in enterprise applications.

Human error prevention

According to a report published by IBM, the average cost of unplanned downtime for a US enterprise is $5.6M per year, of which, according to a report by GE Digital, 23% can be attributed to human error. 

Error prevention is driving the emergence of Augmented Reality (AR) glasses, where leading manufacturers such as BMW, Boeing, GE, and DHL are piloting AR solutions by Microsoft and Google to reduce the frequency of errors made. Boeing, for example, is using AR glasses powered by Skylight to visually guide technicians through the complex process of wiring hundreds of planes a year. They claim this initiative has already reduced human error to zero. In addition, the makers behind this technology claim to have radically improved worker productivity by cutting the time to perform tasks by 25%. 

Other applications strive to prevent errors by tracking the causes of worker stress and fatigue. 

Readi, by Fatigue Science, is an enterprise suite for heavy Industry that analyzes wearable data to predict sleep’s impact on key performance factors, such as reaction time and cognitive effectiveness. Readiband technology monitors people’s fatigue state during shifts and alerts a shift manager to intervene should the probability of an error be high. 

In addition to the use of sleep sensors, fatigue levels can also be calculated by measuring the movement of the body via wearable sensors. These sensors track fatigue indicators, such as how often workers’ heads move up and down and for how long, and even how straight they walk. For example, Fujitsu’s driver drowsiness detector is worn around the neck by truck drivers to ensure they take the appropriate action of the system deems them unfit to drive. 

Body temperature and heart rate are also stress indicators that can be monitored using this technology. GuardHat, represents an emerging category of smart hard-hats that can measure the ‘active physiology’ of workers operating in physically strenuous working environments. The purpose of this technology is not only to mitigate the risk of error, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to ensure workers’ safety by protecting them from the risks of exposure to toxic gases or the possibility of being struck by heavy objects. 

Enhanced physical endurance

According to the 2018 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index, the total cost of workforce disabling injuries in the US is $58.5 Bn per year. 

Overexertion, which currently accounts for 23.4% of the above, is driving the emergence of a rapidly growing market for exoskeletons (aka Bodysuits or ‘Wearable Robots’) – metal frameworks that are fitted with motorized “muscles” to enhance workers’ strength far beyond that of what is normal for humans. Companies such as SuitX and Ekso Bionics are supplying the aerospace and automotive industries with workforce solutions that can, according to SuitX, reduce human muscle activation by 66%.

Heavy Industry can also learn from analogous industries that are using lower-cost technologies to solve similar problems. Racefox, for example, is a virtual coach targeted at runners and skiers, who are required to wear a smart belt that senses posture and movement. Racefox’s ‘injury prevention mode’ feeds real-time audio coaching to users about how to optimize posture and technique in order to avoid injury. 

On-the-job training

With a ‘baby boomer’ generation on the verge of retirement and a resurgence in nearshore manufacturing, US manufacturers are facing a skills shortage crisis, which is fueling the need to find smarter ways to train unskilled labor. On average, a new machine operator requires 18 days of training and 72% of manufacturers still rely on traditional shadowing or on-the-floor training methodologies.

AR software providers are addressing this with ‘remote expert’ solutions, whereby older, more experienced technicians are moving to the control room,  from where they can guide new technicians, in real time. In this case, a pair of AR glasses are worn by the field technician, enabling the ‘expert’ in the control room to see what they see and advise accordingly.  In addition, AR software providers are experimenting with ways in which the control room expert can overlay graphic information onto the field technician’s field of view in order to ensure knowledge is transferred as smoothly as possible. Remote training is still in its infancy as a service and could be far more effective – as the baby boomer generation moves into retirement I imagine a future where the role as trainer will be adopted by a virtual coach.

Driving a path to adoption

Looking longer term there is an array of potential in the data that companies can harvest from the workforce to fuel more effective people and process operations. However, the key to this potential being realized lies in the workforce’s willingness to adopt this technology. Heavy Industries are by culture change resistant, so it’s imperative that these new tools are designed with the needs of the worker in mind. If you are looking to explore how enterprise wearables can help your bottom line, we recommend three key principles to drive workforce adoption.

1. Put health and safety first

The idea of being constantly monitored by prying eyes during shifts is something a factory worker or field technician would most likely not take kindly to, so highlighting the health and safety benefits to them is key. Help them to see that wearable tech is more about ‘watching out for you’ as opposed to ‘watching over you’. By doing this, workers will show more willingness to adopt the technology and share their operational data in exchange for peace of mind.

2. Make sure it’s relevant

Workers will also resist adoption if the technology is more of a burden than a benefit. This is why a good user experience is imperative to ensure wearable tech seamlessly integrates into current workflows & and actually makes tasks easier. This necessitates employers investing in a rigorous design process to ensure their workers’ operational needs are clearly met and the benefits of the technology are clear to them.

3. Make it familiar 

The assumption that digital user experiences in heavy industry do not have to ‘look nice is a fallacy. The pull effect of a delightful user experience in consumer applications is a recognized way of driving customer adoption and loyalty. Heavy Industry, however, continuously  struggles to recognize that their workforce are consumers too. It is quite likely that, hidden underneath their protective overalls, lies a smartphone with which they navigate social media, digital banking and E-commerce tools on a frequent basis. Enterprise applications that look, feel and behave like consumer applications can drive adoption by offering the familiar. Familiarity is not only comforting; it is also easier to use. 

About the author 

Christopher Scales has been working with Product Design Strategy for the past 20 years. Christopher’s recent deep dive into the world of enterprise wearables derives from a number of recent engagements with heavy industry companies, where he has been applying design-driven methodologies to develop new digital solutions to drive operational effectiveness. Reach out to Chris at cscales@star.global.