Wearable technology is changing the face of manufacturing

Glen White
- Lean - Sep 10, 2015

A recent survey, the State of Manufacturing Technology Report, including data from more than 130 manufacturers, reveals that much of the manufacturing industry is somewhat sceptical about wearable tech and its application on the shop floor.

In fact, some 35 percent of respondents said smart glasses are overhyped. And when you consider that 93 percent of survey respondents use consumer tablets in their manufacturing operations, 80 percent incorporate consumer mobile devices and 48 percent already use sensors to track materials and machines, it’s obvious that today’s manufacturers are eager to deploy modern devices that help people and machines team up to get more done. In fact, wearable computing devices are changing manufacturing. Here are the three areas where you’ll notice the biggest difference.

1. Training is more efficient

If you have ever recruited people for manufacturing jobs, you know that new employees face a potential roadblock to productivity: the computer. No matter how computer savvy your new hires may be, they’ll still need to learn the software applications you use for recording hours, entering data about new shipments, and reporting product defects.

Wearable tech eliminates the time and expense of teaching new line workers how to navigate software. To put it simply, wearable tech can teach your employees on the go, as well as a capture great deal of the data.

Think of what that means: you can now hire a new employee, set them up with wearable technology that talks to your machines and computers, and deploy them on your assembly line as not only a productive worker, but also a data collection agent. And because they won’t be constantly running to a computer to punch in data, your new hire will get much more done.

Let’s picture how this might work: You equip your warehouse staff with digital scanning devices and Google Glass. The pointers allow them to point to any box and see captured barcode data about its contents displayed on their Google Glass. This will not only eliminate the need for them to open boxes and examine the contents, but also enable them to record data on new shipments in a fraction of the time.

There was a time when you could hire new line workers based on their skill, not their computer savvy. That day is here again. Wearables let assembly line staff focus on what they do best.

2. Safety is improved

We’ve all seen the signs: “34 Days Since Our Last Accident.” Soon, we won’t need those signs at all. Wearables will make workplaces virtually accident-proof by overriding the worst human judgment.

Picture this: you require all your warehouse staff to wear a (yet-to-be prototyped) smart vest. If a forklift driver is rounding a corner and doesn’t realize another worker is standing there, no problem. His smart vest will beep an alarm code that signals him to slow down and be alert.

That’s Version 1.0, of course. Version 2.0 will actually interact with the forklift’s controls and apply the brakes when a collision with a human is imminent.

Wearables are doing more than that to promote safety on the manufacturing shop floor. Because they’re on people at all times, they help management gather data on the speed at which workers are traveling—so that the one forklift driver who consistently drives too fast can be corrected. Wearables also let management gather data about how workers are spending their time on the shop floor and what safety hazards they’re exposed to on a daily basis.

The benefits extend to customer safety, too. Imagine a sensor that electronics manufacturing workers can wear on one finger and touch to an electronic component to make sure it has been welded at the correct temperature. The temperature data would automatically be transmitted to the cloud, where the company’s management could then monitor product quality in real time. These are the kinds of innovations that are already emerging onto the market.

3. People and machines can communicate better

Wearables do more than minimize your training requirements, save time for line workers, and help prevent accidents. They also let people and machines communicate with no barriers.

A warehouse worker points to a box with a digital pointer and sees its contents on Google Glass without opening it. A line worker wearing sensors on his hands touches a finished product to measure its size and shape and verify that it meets specifications. Another line worker points to a machine to see data on Google Glass about the machine’s speed, temperature, efficiency, and maintenance history.

Workers share all this data with their peers who may be affected by it—without leaving the shop floor. And all of this data is stored in the cloud for real-time or future analysis.

It’s as if our manufacturing workers are walking around trailing ones and zeroes.

Decision-makers crave those ones and zeroes. Whether it’s generated by a machine or by a human, data is what drives every strategic business decision today. The more data, the better.

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