Wearable technologies—Google Glass, HoloLens and more—have been a hot commodity at user group meetings lately or shows like the Offshore Technology Conference (OTC), where automation suppliers are demonstrating the value of overlaying augmented reality or other documentation within the field of view of plant personnel. In fact, hardened wearables and their use by field workers was a featured topic in our latest issue of Automation World.
At the Automation World Conference this week in Chicago, we got a reminder that it’s often best not to reach for all the latest and greatest capabilities just because it’s cool technology. Rather, tackle a small bit of the technology that makes a good case for the business outcomes you’re seeking—start with some basics and get your feet under you before you take off running.
At H.B. Fuller, a global manufacturer of adhesives, field workers are making use of industrial wearables without getting caught up in all the possibilities of the technology. But by using them simply to capture video to stream back to a remote expert, they’ve been able to get significant value-add by reducing troubleshooting time and travel costs.
Jason Sagstetter, senior IT project manager at H.B. Fuller, has been spearheading the project for the company. Donned in Google Glasses himself, he took to the stage to preach the benefits of streaming video through the devices.
It’s fair to classify Sagstetter as a Google Glass evangelist. He marks March 26, 2014 as a day that changed his life; he became a Google Glass Explorer and has been wearing the hardware every day from sunrise to sunset ever since—more than anyone else in the world, he says. “I’ve explored the potential of wearables every day,” he told conference attendees. That potential has included everyday capture of video of his two young daughters (shots he would’ve missed if he’d had to get his phone out of his pocket to take them) on up to helping to save somebody’s life by video streaming the man’s condition to remote responders.
“One of the most powerful aspects of the technology is that I can share experiences from a first-person view,” Sagstetter said. “You’re seeing what I’m seeing.”
His exploration of wearables' potential extends to enterprise as well, specifically manufacturing spaces. H.B. Fuller is leveraging the wearable technology to solve problems in the field—giving technicians immediate access to remote experts who can help get a machine back up and running quickly. It combats a scenario common to troubleshooting today, in which customers might not have the same knowledge or vocabulary to properly describe a problem over the phone. Once an expert flies out to the location, you hope it’s the right person to solve the problem.
With video streaming through Google Glass, “we could bring the problem to the expert,” Sagstetter said. “We could potentially get you operational almost immediately.” The video improves clarity in communication because the expert can see exactly what the customer has been trying to describe.
“This has enabled us to leverage existing FTEs—to have a small group of FTEs to essentially be available for everyone in the world,” Sagstetter said. It provides value by saving travel expenses, but the real value-add is by providing much more immediate customer satisfaction. “Proactivity is where the value-add really comes from. The customer has a problem, we react. We have the ability to show them on their equipment how to use our product.”
Safety a priority
Particularly with workers using the glasses in dangerous environments, an audience member questioned whether there was concern about safety while using the wearables. Sagstetter insisted that it was just the opposite—the glasses actually improve safety over the methods that workers had been using.
Safety has always been the No. 1 priority for H.B. Fuller, Sagstetter said. There was actually concern about workers pulling their phones out of their pockets to take pictures or video, despite policies to the contrary. And it is those activities that make them less able to maintain situational awareness—causing them to reach their arms out to unsafe areas, for example, or move closer than they should to get a picture. “Part of the reason smart glasses are so important is because they didn’t do those things,” he said. “They give the ability for them to keep their hands free and keep their body safe.”
One of the most common questions from workers, in fact, is: “Why can’t I just use my phone?” Much of that answer comes down to safety. Not only do workers lose the use of a hand when they have to hold their phone, it also creates what Sagstetter calls the spear paradox. They’re in loud, dark, often dirty environments—and if they’re too focused on capturing something with their device, then they’re not focused on safety, he said. “The safety impact [of the technology] is paramount,” he added. “Everything they’ve been focused on is taking away from them being aware of their surroundings.” Using a phone also requires that they take any hearing protection away in order to get the phone’s audio.
Keeping it simple
All the examples that Sagstetter showed or talked about during his presentation referenced see-what-I-see applications, sending video to a remote expert. That’s by design, he said. “The way we’ve found success is by keeping it simple,” he said. He wants workers to get used to the technology before taking on a higher level of use.
Just the video alone comes with enough of its own issues. “Video streaming is one of the most difficult things you can do,” Sagstetter said, pointing to potential issues caused by such bandwidth-hungry technology. “You have to make sure the packets get out in real time.” If a worker is pointing at something in a video, and the remote expert on the other end says, “Yes, that’s the right one,” you’d better make sure video lag time doesn’t cause confusion.
Ultimately, though, H.B. Fuller will move on to other phases of wearables use, taking more advantage of the technologies available such as augmented reality or document retrieval. “I want them to be familiar with the technology first so that ideas come from them,” Sagstetter said.