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Empowering the workforce with wearables

As automation, robotics and IoT become more pervasive, there is a nagging fear that this technology is reducing the need for people in the manufacturing process; in fact, it is making people more important than ever. The future of manufacturing is the integration of people and technology. In the Industry 4.0 world, the productivity of a hands-on production workforce depends on people being closely connected to data and equipment in real time, so they can fully apply their talent and knowledge for the benefit of the business. This man-machine-data intersection is where wearables can have a profound impact. They make people more competitive, helping them work smarter, safer and faster by augmenting their skills, not replacing them.

Harnessing the power of assisted reality

Forrester predicts that more than 14 million U.S. workers will use smart glasses by 2025, largely because these devices have a unique ability to connect workers with the information right when and where they need it, while allowing them to remain hands free to handle the tasks in front of them.

Software seamlessly connects data in an existing enterprise knowledge base, like an enterprise resource planning, warehouse management system or manufacturing execution system. Then, through the lenses of the smart glasses, the software delivers critical information, such as reference manuals, diagrams, checklists, images and videos, directly in the worker’s line of sight. Smart glasses can also display real-time readouts and data generated by equipment connected to the industrial internet of things, bringing data directly to the frontlines of industry.

This might sound like augmented reality, but there’s an important difference. Full AR identifies and overlays computer-generated objects in the real world seen through advanced see-through glasses. But the best of these capabilities require complex hardware, software and location-based systems that are still in developmental stages. The capabilities that are being adopted today, which we call “assisted reality” for purposes of de-conflicting the concept, convey instructional information to smart glasses, but do not necessarily provide a hyper-realistic overlay of digital imagery.

Full AR has intriguing future potential, but we believe that assisted reality is a more practical solution for the vast majority of industrial scenarios that simply require the convenience of a hands-free display. We’ve seen a number of top-tier industrial customers realize enormous benefits from assisted reality today, without overinvesting in tools that are not production ready for their workplaces, and without missing the available ROI as they wait for full AR to “arrive.”

Upskilled people are more effective and empowered

With the technology distinction as a backdrop, wearables are unmatched in their capability to fit seamlessly into the work being performed on assembly lines, in warehouses and out in the field — while delivering valuable insights that can make workers more efficient, safe and effective at their jobs.

Aerospace giant Boeing is using assisted reality to become more competitive in the critical area of complex assembly, seeing dramatic improvements in both speed and quality. Wiring harness technicians wear smart glasses to connect with the company’s data repositories, giving them access to instructional manuals and other critical information about the wires and components they are assembling that simply can’t be memorized.

Instead of referencing PDF-based instructions on laptops, constantly shifting their focus between screens and wiring, and using their hands to navigate various documentation, technicians can do their work more efficiently and accurately, without distractions that dilute their focus and cause fatigue.

Workers can use voice commands to bring up reference images and instructional videos, and call in an expert for guidance through “see what I see” live video feeds. These features, which are unique to smart glasses, allow new technicians to get up to speed faster and help even the most experienced workers improve their productivity.

Since deploying wearables in its wiring harness assembly process, Boeing has reported 25% improvement in production speed, while reducing errors effectively to zero. Just imagine those benefits at full scale, across a workforce of more than 100,000.

Start small for big impacts

If you’re wondering where to begin, maybe start with a pilot in one specific scenario, tied to key metrics that can demonstrate the technology’s potential business impact. We actually insist that our customers do baseline testing so we can establish clear ROI to prove the business case for broad deployment.

The qualitative and quantitative success of these first deployments provides inspiration for additional use cases, whether within the same department or in a different function or business unit. If you invest in a complete platform solution to support your assisted reality implementation, rather than an app focused on a specific task orientation, it’s much faster and easier to expand to additional solutions for the business, reducing total cost of ownership.

Also, keep in mind that these technologies fundamentally target the human workforce. Successful deployments of wearables focus on people performing tasks that can’t be automated. The value of smart glasses really shines through when a skilled employee is able to access information to be truly exceptional, or when a new hire benefits from on-the-job training and his ability to instantly view reference materials and process documentation right within his line of view while performing new tasks.

Looking forward, we are poised to see continued adoption of wearables in enterprises. ABI Research estimates that global wearable device shipments will increase from 202 million in 2016 to more than 501 million by 2021. Of 2016’s shipments, 17% are attributed to enterprise end users, and this is expected to grow in the coming years.

Wearables are the next step in the evolution of the IoT and serve an important role in creating an environment where humans work with machines. Wearables will upskill the workforce, supplementing their existing knowledge and optimize what we humans do best — use our brains and our hands to create the future.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.

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