Why Manufacturers are Using Wearable Tech to Increase Workplace Safety

By Michael Benedict on June 14, 2016

Manufacturing Tech When you think of wearable technology, you probably think of fitness-obsessed types donning a Fitbit or Jawbone activity fitness tracker to count steps and log calories.

But believe it or not, the wearables market for the workplace is also booming, and manufacturers are jumping aboard. A recent Forrester Research survey polled over 2,000 tech decision makers and found that a third (32 percent) cited supporting wearables as a “critical” or “high” priority.

And manufacturers are already using available wearables to improve productivity and workplace safety. Another survey, this one by APX Labs, found that wearable use is “especially prevalent for inspection, manufacturing and field service/repair activities,” possibly because wearables enable employees to remain connected while also staying hands-free.

State of Enterprise Wearables

For example, General Motors created a solution with Google Glass that hosts tutorials for employees to learn on the actual production line. Customer experience developer Solstice Mobile reports that GM is also experimenting with using Google Glass as a way to improve the repair process. “If there is an issue with the equipment, employees can easily snap photos of the broken machine and share it, all without the use of their hands.”

In late 2015, Honeywell and Intel demonstrated a prototype of a personal “connected safety solution” that aims to reduce workplace injury and improve productivity. The Honeywell Connected Worker prototype was demonstrated with first responders but could be used for any physically demanding job across a variety of work environments. It’s made up of a series of linked wearable sensors that measure a worker’s breathing, heart rate, posture, and motion, and can detect whether someone has been exposed to toxic gas. The Worker is meant to give plant managers and incident commanders “the information needed to better anticipate unsafe conditions and prevent potential ‘man-down’ scenarios that could threaten worker safety. In addition, the data can be used to prevent equipment failure that could create unsafe conditions or costly downtime.”

“Connecting the industrial worker to the digital world via wearable intelligent sensors is now becoming a viable reality,” Intel said. “This capability provides solutions that improve worker efficiency and safety, including hands-free operations of industrial equipment and worker activity detection.”

Whether you’ve already deployed work safety wearables in your plant or are thinking about doing it soon, the data generated from these devices can only become more valuable when it’s combined with real time data from other sources, like inspection reports.

With enough data from sources like inspection reports as well as on-machine sensors, you can begin to go from reactive to proactive. Today’s software and cloud-based solutions can store and process historical and real time sensor data alongside maintenance data and “learn” what patterns are normal behavior and which signify a problem. Predictive analytics made possible by a corpus of data allow you to do maintenance planning in advance — if you know when a machine is expected to fail or need a tune-up, you can better plan for these events.

GoCanvas Business Insights lets you easily export data from GoCanvas mobile forms such as inspection reports or safety checks into Excel, where you can analyze the information and see if any patterns emerge. This knowledge can help improve worker safety, mitigate unsafe conditions, and reduce downtime by anticipating (and preventing) accidents before they happen.

Wearable devices are an important part of the equation because they provide data that you can’t get any other way, or allow your workers to get the data without having to pick up a separate device.

But, as Intel points out, wearable tech isn’t the be-all and end-all. “Data from individual wearable devices — if viewed independently — can potentially cause false alarms and contribute to inefficiencies in manpower as a result,” the company said. “Fusing sensor technology with big data processing [and] analytics — all in the cloud — is the key to improving local intelligence as well as remote visualization of actionable intelligence.”

The best way to start, then, is by gathering some of that big data. Stop using inefficient paper forms to record inspections and inventory; start using mobile forms where the data is stored in the cloud and accessible from anywhere.

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