Savvy manufacturers and industrial firms are kitting out their workers with wearables to increase productivity and safety on factory floors, warehouses and depots. As an intuitive way of augmenting — rather than replacing — workers, wearables play a valuable role in speeding up the revolutionary goals of Industry 4.0. And making the humans who work in industrial production more intelligent, connected and productive increases efficiency incrementally, without the need to rip and replace factory infrastructure.

According to a 2017 report by Zebra Technologies Corporation, half of manufacturers globally are expected to adopt wearables by 2022, and the industrial wearables market will grow eightfold to USD 8.6 billion by 2024. Augmented reality (AR) goggles — or smart glasses — account for the lion’s share. By facilitating real-time remote assistance to workers by an expert, supervisor or algorithm, smart glasses boost productivity, reduce downtime, ensure quality and improve customer satisfaction for industries.

Augmentation offers quick return on investment (ROI)

Aside from AR goggles, augmentation options include equipping operators with headsets, gloves, vests or other clothing items that interact with data sensors in the factory, and algorithms in the cloud, to direct workers. Smart glasses provide real-time overlays of digital information, identifying components to pick — which enables multi-product assembly in factories — and also providing bespoke assembly instructions in real time, and updating and reminding workers of health and safety best practices.

Additionally, as Andreas Koenig, chief executive officer (CEO) of industrial wearables manufacturer ProGlove, points out, the speed of evolution within artificial intelligence (AI) and automation is exciting. Yet, for companies seeking rapid improvements in productivity, the ROI model doesn’t stack up, he says: “Full automation is not always an option. But if you look closely at any warehouse environment, for example, there are significant opportunities to augment the performance of the existing human workforce”.

Enable bespoke assembly in factory lines

Wearables are improving safety and quality in the food processing industry, confirms Keith Thornhill, head of food and beverages, United Kingdom and Ireland, for Siemens Digital Industries. “Industry hazards, such as contagious workers who come to work, can be detected through wristbands that monitor body temperature and blood pressure”. Potentially, they save the food processing industry millions of pounds by avoiding food contamination and having products withdrawn from shelves, and crucially, safeguard public health.

While wearables started out as a consumer fad in sports and leisure, manufacturers are leveraging these intuitive devices, which can be donned in rugged physical environments in a hands-free manner. Operators can scan bar codes and Quick Response (QR) codes on physical components in industrial environments without having to interrupt work by picking up a scanner. Alerts can be dynamically sent to individuals’ wearables, triggered by sensors in the product they are interacting with, which ensures they are following correct procedures, eliminating errors, and keeping workers and customers safe.

Reduce faults, lengthen product life

A report by digital services company Minsait names efficiency and safety as the two main advantages that wearables bring to the industrial sector. “There’s no need for conscious interaction by the human operator — as is needed using smartphones, tablets or PCs. In the industrial sphere, this advantage implies numerous valuable features”, which are associated with two main benefits, says Minsait: integrating and scaling operator functionality with in-plant operation systems, and operator safety.

The Minsait report cites German industrial steel manufacturer Thyssenkrupp as equipping 24,000 lift maintenance operators with Microsoft HoloLens AR glasses so they can identify maintenance problems, hands-free. Together with access to the company’s predictive maintenance intelligence on lifts, technicians can analyse the maintenance needs of each lift in real time. Using smart glasses has enabled ThyssenKrupp to reduce the stoppage times for its lifts by 50 per cent, increase lift lifetime and increase the safety of the operators.

Increase worker safety

Minsait also cites service company Amey and a study it commissioned in 2017 to learn how the working day affected the physical health of its workers. It used smart vests to monitor and manage various health parameters, including heart rate, breathing, steps, posture and stress levels. The main physiological data was correlated with the activities performed by the operators.

Potentially dangerous situations were identified, such as driving vehicles in reverse, on irregular surfaces or in heavy traffic, because of stress behaviours shown by professionals. Following the study, Amey introduced wearables and consequently has seen a fall in the amount of sick leave taken by its operators. It has also reduced stress levels under critical situations and ultimately increased user safety.

However technically advanced today’s wearables are, and despite the productivity opportunities they offer, augmentation can be derailed if the workforce isn’t properly trained, warns Dr. Paul Rivers, chief executive officer of Guidance Automation. “Enabling operators to access real-time data in an intuitive way through wearables … enables continuous improvement. But ensuring [that] people are part of this process from the very beginning is essential because their day-to-day activities will change.”