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Wearable Technology In The Manufacturing Workplace

Mon, 06/02/2014 - 3:49pm
Kylene Zenk-Batsford, Kronos Incorporated

Today, wearable technology — devices such as Pebble, GoPro, Jawbone, Google Glass and FitBit are just a few examples — is an exciting new trend in the consumer world. For more evidence of this technology’s popularity, consider that Amazon.com recently announced the launch of its wearable technology store to give customers access to a wide array of the most popular wearable devices.

But many think that wearable technology may soon become a valuable tool in the manufacturing workplace, and one that can deliver a number of significant benefits. For example, if implemented correctly, wearable technology has the potential to transform manufacturing processes, improve productivity, increase efficiency, and even enhance employee engagement.

A Day in the Life: Wearable Technology in Manufacturing

Admittedly, wearable technology is just beginning to emerge and may pose more questions than answers. Yet to understand how manufacturing companies could reap these benefits, imagine the following scenario.

Employees

In a busy manufacturing facility, employees now come to work wearing smart wristbands that are location-aware. As employees enter the building, the wristband automatically punches them in for the day, and gives specific work instructions; for example, directing them to a specific work cell where they have been assigned that day.

This company also has remote field workers. With wearable technology, they now connect to other workers or the home office for advice to troubleshoot daily issues, such as a particularly challenging repair job. Workers also use video technology to share what they are seeing to accelerate the job and ensure it’s done correctly.

Managers

Production managers and supervisors also take advantage of wearable technology, giving them fast access to vital labor-related information in real-time. Managers also use their wearable devices to monitor many other important metrics: the total volume of goods produced, what is required for rework, and the amount of scrap. Supervisors even adjust employee schedules on the fly to make sure labor allocation matches demand — all in just a few taps on their personal device.

Machine Malfunctions and other Challenges

Later in the day, a machine malfunctions and interrupts the output on a key production line. The manager immediately receives an alert on his device, taps the screen, and instantly reassigns workers to a nearby line until the machine is fixed. They can also quickly dispatch maintenance to come fix equipment, as needed. And employees receive the notification on their own device and quickly move to where they are needed, minimizing downtime and maintaining productivity.

As all of this happens, the wearable device tracks their location, “knows” that they have moved to a new production line, creates a job transfer, assigns a new work order, and automatically starts tracking their work. There is no need for employees to interact with a computer or time clock. The technology has already taken care of that for them so they can focus on what’s really important — the work at hand.

Complete Visibility, Complete Control

Collectively speaking, all employees’ wearable devices provide managers real-time, actionable information about their work: what they are working on, whom they are working with, if there are productivity issues, and if they are on schedule or falling behind. With complete visibility into these metrics and more, management can quickly correct hidden bottlenecks or product quality issues. In turn, this helps the entire company to react in real time to optimize business outcomes.

The Future Starts Now

If this example seems far-fetched, it may be closer than you think. Many believe that wearable technology is poised to explode in the workplace, with a potentially significant impact on the economy. According to a report from Transparency Market Research, the wearable technology market is poised to expand rapidly in the next several years. According to this report, the global wearable technology market stood at $750.0 million in 2012 and is expected to reach $5.8 billion in 2018.Wearables are already leveraging advances in voice technology, biometrics, and communications, and are growing.

Why the Workforce?

With examples such as these, some experts believe that wearable technology will more quickly become adopted in the workplace than by consumers. But employers will have to take care to avoid the perception that this is an attempt to monitor employees or intrude on their privacy.

Yet employees may already be receptive to the idea.  After all, the concept of wearable technology already exists in some fashion. Employee badges, package-tracking devices, and tablets in the workplace are all examples of technology that employees have already embraced as part of their daily work lives. If employees experience real benefits from using wearable technology on the job — such as recognition from management or improved productivity — they will embrace it.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Of course, there is still a lot of conjecture on how this will play out, and there are a few challenges that must be tackled. Wearable technology is clearly here, and here to stay. The technology is only going to get better and more prevalent in the months and years ahead and progressive manufacturers are likely to adopt wearable technology to further add value to their businesses. 

Kylene Zenk-Batsford is senior manager of the manufacturing practice group at Kronos Incorporated.

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