As manufacturing organisations embrace remote and hybrid working arrangements, IT managers are faced with several new challenges. There can be tangible benefits in the modern factory, mine or plant when frontline workers are empowered with next-generation wearable technologies. The new factory ‘connected worker’ concept is more than hype. When frontline workers are empowered with the right technologies, they can make better, more informed decisions, collaborate and work more productively and safely.
A connected worker project aims to provide workers with end-to-end visibility of enterprise information that is targeted and relevant in the context of the work being done. By enhancing operational visibility and providing people with the ‘bigger picture’, organisational silos can be broken down and day-to-day decisions become more collaborative, leading to improved business outcomes.
Catalysts for change
Several factors have recently catalysed the adoption of connected worker technologies across manufacturing. Precautions related to Covid-19 required factories to work with fewer staff and implement contact tracing in the workplace. The increased flexibility associated with working from home has also led to companies expanding their efforts to retain skilled workers and offer more flexible working arrangements.
With a new, digitally empowered workforce, new productivity and efficiency gains are expected. The use of modern wearables and portable devices can also improve worker safety. The hardware is rapidly evolving and a range of industrial-grade wearable and mobile devices are becoming available, including biometric sensors, trip/fall detection, location sensors, environmental monitoring and gas detection. The workforce wears these as part of its protective equipment, carried as portable devices or positioned at critical locations in the plant.
Connected worker technologies will allow companies to find new ways to unlock value across the factory. For example, improved access to real-time work instructions, safety information and operational status can be accessed using mobile applications on tablets or other portable devices. This enhances the effectiveness of work.
Safety risk can also be reduced by monitoring essential biometric information such as heart rate, body temperature and breathing patterns. Small wearable sensors can detect a range of dangerous gases and alert the wearer before they reach a harmful threshold. The location of workers can be tracked using GPS and proximity sensors, making it possible to monitor the status of lone workers.
Specialised devices on the market can track workers in highly remote locations using GPS and satellite connectivity. This would be useful in dispersed mining operations and for example, when inspecting powerlines or pipelines that might run across the country. In the event of an emergency or evacuation, tracking the location of people across a large area could help save lives.
Smart technologies built tough
From a technology point of view, connected worker solutions require robust industrial-grade hardware and well-designed software applications that run on a resilient and flexible software platform. To provide intelligent and context-aware information, connected worker software needs to stream data and communicate with cloud services such as big data storage, analytics and artificial intelligence (AI). To remotely support frontline workers, software needs to withstand the temporary loss of the network. Typically, connected worker devices will be able to connect through the cellular network (3G, 4G and 5G) and industrial Wi-Fi or satellites.
The devices and platforms that will enable this shift towards connected workers are becoming readily available. The challenge for the IT manager is to assemble the different components in a way that will be resilient, easy to maintain, cost-effective and support the requirements of the future workforce.
Many organisations will not start from scratch and will be looking to leverage their existing IT networks. However, this approach could have some future limitations when the increased demands for connectivity, for example, have a cybersecurity implication. It might also be necessary to implement new proprietary edge hardware that integrates with the rest of your systems.
Therefore, before implementing a connected worker solution, paying close attention to the vendor’s underlying platform is essential. Is the platform easy to integrate into your current environment? Is it cloud-enabled? How secure is it? Is it easy to manage? How flexible is it? A connected worker platform is a critical strategic technology decision that will have implications for your manufacturing operation well into the future.
Meanwhile, in the real world
When introducing connected worker technologies, starting small and implementing a proof of concept in the real working environment is advisable. Once the feasibility has been demonstrated and tangible benefits have been demonstrated, the system can be rolled out more widely. At this point, the project often stalls because the broader implications of the technology across the business have not been adequately considered and planned for.
In conclusion, connected worker technologies are at the frontier of an exciting new chapter in manufacturing IT. They hold many potential benefits and will set new expectations for productivity, safety and operational effectiveness in the workforce. It is worth researching the topic closely ahead of a possible implementation to make the proper hardware, software and platform choices.
About Gavin Halse
Gavin Halse is a chemical process engineer who has been involved in the manufacturing sector since mid-1980. He founded a software business in 1999 which grew to develop specialised applications for mining, energy and process manufacturing in several countries. Gavin is most interested in the effective use of IT in industrial environments and now consults part time to manufacturing and software companies around the effective use of IT to achieve business results.
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