You might have noticed smartphones and wearable technology made for the average consumer now being integrated into manufacturing facilities. Smart watches, mobiles, Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity and asset sensors are all coming together to make the industrial worker more connected. According to a study from Accenture, 85 percent of manufacturing executives in North America, Europe and Asia believe connected workers will be commonplace in their plants by 2020.
Connected worker capabilities have the potential to make work faster, more accurate and convenient for operators and maintainers. Meanwhile, those capabilities give managers real-time holistic insights into how work is conducted, as well as business-wide savings through efficiency gains.
What is the connected worker?
In essence, the connected worker is equipped with the right data at the right time, routine tasks are automated, and attention is redirected toward more valuable activities like continuous improvement. The goal is to have the system monitor itself and notify workers when there’s a problem, rather than spending time watching and waiting for problems. The connected worker concept is about proactivity vs. reactivity.
The connected worker in a manufacturing facility could start work orders, complete quality checks and log raw materials—all from a mobile device, smart watch, Bluetooth headset, or even augmented reality (AR) device. In addition, push notifications (such as alerts for machine stoppage events, quality checks due, or critical control points heading out of specification) enable the connected worker to rectify issues in a timelier manner.
Lessons on building connected worker capability
We’re working with multiple large-scale manufacturing clients who want to achieve the connected worker capability in their digital strategies. For anyone looking to venture into this space, our experience has produced some valuable lessons:
• We’re finding there’s not much software in this space yet. As with any digitization project, it’s still quite new. So be cautious of getting an off-the-shelf solution that is advertised as having a mobile user interface (UI) and it not quite meeting the mark on usability.
• Keep usability top of mind. The whole idea is to make someone’s work quicker and easier. If they’re having to fiddle with menu structures or squint to read the screen, you’re not going to achieve the gains you set out to.
• Which brings me to my next point: Not everything is suited to mobile. Remember that desktop still has a place. For example, our beverage client’s solution uses both desktop and mobile UI for different paperless quality sampling functions.
• Foundational infrastructure such as a good Wi-Fi network and tight integration are fundamental. Addressing this depends on your current infrastructure—some might be able to simply add more access points, but others might require a major network upgrade.
• As with any digitization project, you’ll need a digitization strategy. If the majority of processes are still manual, you can’t just go mobile! The connected worker capability is one part of an overall digital ecosystem. One client of ours is implementing a paperless quality system at the same time as mobile connectivity as part of its two-year digital roadmap.
What’s next for the connected worker?
The rate at which this space is changing is unfathomable. We’re already in talks with our clients about the next level of connectivity after wearables, including leveraging the likes of Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa for voice commands to free up workers’ hands—asking questions like “What’s my current machine speed?” or “When’s my next quality check due?”
Plus, we’re looking at how AR can be used for remote technical support by using tools like Microsoft HoloLens. Here, maintainers and remote support technicians can “share their vision” using cameras and AR to resolve issues and even show standard operating procedure and machine drawings in someone’s augmented vision.
If you take anything away from this article, it should be this: The connected worker is about making better use of resources by automating repetitive tasks and refocusing on more valuable tasks like continuous improvement. Remember, it’s a small but powerful component of a digitization strategy. If you develop the right strategy and lay down foundational infrastructure now, you’ll be setting yourself up to adapt this capability sooner than you might think.
Kim Fiddaman is a senior consultant at Nukon, a Sage Automation brand. Sage is a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Sage, visit its profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.