No matter how many machines, robots, and power tools we add to the assembly line, manufacturing still requires people to occasionally do backbreaking, repetitive work that can create chronic health issues and slow their ability to do their job.
Wearable computing promises the chance for manufacturers to track the work their people are forced to do and make sure their health, safety, and productivity aren't compromised.
Wearable computing is coming from a lot of divergent sources looking to fill specific niches, mostly consumer or healthcare, but manufacturers of any kind are going to be able to re-tool many of these for their own needs.
When you think about wearable computing you have two different product categories coming down the pike: fully functioning personal devices like Google Glass and data-gathering devices.
The data gathering devices are what we're going to see first, and interestingly enough, we're seeing them coming out of the fitness and healthcare fields. Remote monitoring for chronic diseases, telehealth, and digital devices are spawning a new generation of devices and apps to track health data.
One of the more interesting devices in this class is the Under Armour E39 shirt. The E39 debuted at the NFL Scouting Combine, an event where college athletes go through intense drills in hopes of raising the interest of NFL scouts.
The E39 has a series of embedded sensors in the shirt including heart monitors, breathing monitors, and accelerometers. The accelerometers can determine the efficiency of an athlete's movements. For instance, this article points out that a coach using the data from the E39 was able to tell that an athlete was taking strides that were too long, and those long strides were causing him to decelerate between steps. E39 can also combine multiple data points to create a "work rate" to make sure that someone is getting the most out of their workout.
Adapting the E39 for a manufacturing environment should be relatively easy. Look at the data much as you would M2M communications. In your assembly line, you have systems that automatically place machines on and offline when something happens along the line. In your supply chain, you have refrigerated trucks with sensors that inform you when the temperature is not correct and supply is compromised.
Imagine a system that would allow you to see that somewhere along your line, productivity is being slowed by fatigued workers. Monitoring their "work rate" or their body for fatigue may allow you to get the most out of your workers by changing their break schedules. Perhaps, more frequent and shorter breaks are more effective for some jobs and longer and fewer breaks are required for others.
Accumulating physical data will help your people be more productive.
And it isn't merely productivity, but safety as well. Manufacturers pay roughly $1 billion per week in direct compensation to injured workers. But it is well known that workers are more prone to injury when fatigued. And repetitive injuries can often be caused by poor form. Monitoring fatigue and form using the telemetry from something like the E39 could save manufacturers millions and also save lives.
In fact, that's exactly what DARPA is experimenting with. They plan on implanting microchips directly into soldiers to monitor their health in order to save lives and keep troops healthy. While implanting your employees is probably not advised, external systems are just as useful for a controlled setting like a factory floor.
Beyond monitoring employees, a new line of wearable computers like those in Google Glass could be used to augment the capabilities of existing employees. Boeing has experimented with augmented reality to help engineers with installing and maintaining literally thousands of miles of cable and wire in their aircraft. But augmented reality aided by wearable devices could be used to train workers, give them information about potential delays along the line, and give them stats about their productivity.
One knock on wearable computing is that computers are fragile. There was considerable question whether computers could ever be rugged enough to handle the vibration, temperature extremes, and other taxing environments of the manufacturing floor. Here is a video of Google's wearable computer being used in other fairly rigorous environments:
Obviously, we don't know how many computers were destroyed making this video, and it was an advertisement so it has to be taken with a grain of salt. But strides are clearly being made with mobile devices to make computers more robust for the factory floor. Tablets and phones are now a mainstay of the factory floor. This is clearly another step in that direction.
It is too early to know if you'll want to run out and buy a wearable computer for everyone on your assembly line along with their hard hat or safety goggles. But the modern assembly line is a fully realized network of M2M nodes and computers working together. It is only a matter of time before people are added to that network.
When that happens, CIOs need to be able to store an awful lot of personal data. They need to keep it secure, and they need to be able to scan it automatically for anomalies. They need to be able to use that data to keep people safe and productive. It will be a whole new set of processes I'd like to think of as H2M (human to machine) manufacturing. It could be an exciting and transformative moment for manufacturing, if you're ready.
@Dave: What you're saying makes perfect sense in theory, and from a management perspective I can see how it could be used for good.
As a worker, though, the whole idea of it seriously creeps me out. Wonder how this could be applied to knowledge workers? Functional MRIs of our brains, so they can tell when we're watching cute kitten videos on YouTube instead of doing our jobs?
I think so. I also think that while it requires an element of trust, it behooves management not to treat their labor like cattle. Working them to the edge and using this to make people push their physical limits costs them too much in terms of worker's compensation and liability.
You're much better off using this to cut your worker's compensation burden than worrying about the 1% you're not getting from your labor if they only were willing to push harder.
@Dave: True, and it makes it much less onerous in that way. Rather than thinking of this as a day-to-day management tool -- your shirt says you're not working fast enough -- it could actually be used to create better working environments by analyzing information in aggregate.
A much more ethically comfortable scenario to consider.
@Susan- It might, though i would say that the growth of M2M is helping us get creative with setting up networks on show floors.
Another option would be to have the data stored locally when netowrks were unavailable or weak and have the data uploaded during planned breaks.
While real-time is best, some of the data only makes sense over time anyway. For instance seeing that your workforce is productive on different break schedules isn't abou real-time data but about collective data over time.
@Dave: Great ideas here, although I can easily see how these wearable devices could be used against workers, rather than being used to help improve working conditions.
I have a question for you: In my experience talking with IT execs in manufacturing, I've been told that it's often challenging to set up a WLAN on a shop floor given the conditions, the amount of metal and concrete and multiple other sources of interference for wireless signals.
Would this create challenges in making this kind of wearable computing functional in such environments?
@singlemud- i certainly agree with you that this could be used against you by the wrong boss, but i think the benefits outweigh the risks.
Imagine your boss knows you're always tired but you get the job done? doesn't that mean he will think you're a hard worker?
Also, imagine if your output or heart rhythms change because of an illness. How cool would it be if your job was the first to realize you had a risk for a potential heart attack ad got you treatment before it happened?
It requires trust, and it requires trusting people we don't usally want to trust. But the potential is so amazing I'm hoping we try it.
@Rich- A very humorous way of making a real point. But I suspect the issue is less about oil and grime and sweat and more about impact and vibration. At any rate, you're right that some serious "ruggedization" is required.
Certainly, M2M connections have to suffer through similar environments and they make it. I think we'll adjust.
My only concern for this wearable computing device is privacy,especially the Heath data, nobody want their boss know they are constant fatigue or in bad health condition. He need the money to make end need
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