The Role of Wearables in Manufacturing

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Since our founding in 2013, Parsable's mission has been to empower the world's 2.7 billion deskless workers with modern digital tools that improve safety, productivity and quality. We were initially founded as a company called Wearable Intelligence, developing and building enterprise solutions in the wearable technology space. At the time we realized that the hardware and software weren't quite ready yet (nor were the use cases), and so we pivoted our focus. But we never stopped evaluating the space. 

According to an EHS Today article, “The industrial wearable device market value is projected to grow to $2.78 billion by 2024 as employers increasingly begin to utilize data and analytics to reduce costs and prevent injuries.” The rise of wearable technology, from fitness trackers to Google Glass and Microsoft’s HoloLens, has been fueled by technology’s ability to be more efficient and faster over time. 

What is Wearable Technology and Why is it Important?

Wearable technology, also known as wearables, integrates electronics that can be worn as an accessory or embedded on clothing into daily activities. The devices are hands-free gadgets powered by microprocessors and have the ability to send and receive data via the Internet. They include: bracelets, watches, headsets, that deliver augmented, virtual, or mixed reality experiences, and even clothing. 

Wearables are nothing new. In industrial applications, it allows companies to monitor workplace productivity, safety and efficiency, particularly in manufacturing and healthcare. 

In the manufacturing space, wearables are meant to monitor a worker's activity in real time and collect data. More and more, we’re finding teams using wearables for remote work, whether it’s a voice controlled UI or augmented reality (AR). The primary use cases we see traction in our customer base is with remote expert and collaboration capabilities – helping teams operate safely, engage with experts remotely and reduce costs associated with travel.

The age of the connected industrial worker has been a long time coming and the hardware itself has evolved over time, with more capabilities available to the end user. Over the years, we have seen incredible advancements in hardware innovation. And the possibility of incorporating wearbles into the manufacturing space is intriguing for many. Companies have been testing the technology in industrial and manufacturing environments, which has increasingly seen a demand in the marketplace to find product market fit. 

One of the key benefits of this technology is putting expertise in the hands of the end user, while allowing them to actually do the work, versus attempting to review and then context switch to the task. Imagine being able to provide your frontline workers with digital work instructions, guiding them through each step of the task at hand. Not only does this empower frontline workers with the skills needed to fulfill their job, but it can play a vital role in helping workers identify potential problems before they happen. On top of that, imagine equipping maintenance teams with a tool capable of visually pinpointing a problem on a machine, and then providing the step-by-step digital repair work instructions. 

Understanding the Limitations of Wearables 

We’re still in the early days of adoption and implementation. Wearables are often seen as a shiny new toy and it’s  far up the maturity digitization curve. However, wearables are a building block that you can add on top of your digital foundation. Before companies can even make sense of how wearables can be used in their manufacturing environment, first they must focus on establishing the groundwork of their digital transformation efforts. Here are a few strategic considerations.

First, hardware companies are increasingly focused on locking you into their solution and trying to prove their product is the best on the market. With that comes proprietary vocabulary and commands for voice controlled UI headsets, custom point solution apps that don’t scale and no uniform interaction or experience patterns. All of this boils down to hardware companies working to build their defensible position and demonstrate their unique value proposition. This is where we’ve intentionally taken a different position, by designing and building an experience that is device agnostic.

Second, there’s frustration in the market. Companies have been paying for pilot implementations to test use cases for years, only to not see tangible outcomes, and to be shocked once the price of a full implementation is revealed. Part of this is based on the use cases and tests being novelties for "boardroom success theater." The other part is a misunderstanding of (or an unwillingness to embrace) the current capabilities and limitations such as sharing a field of view, voice recognition capabilities and the lack of robust data capture (e.g. capturing a simple “complete”, photo, or video) of the technology.   

At Parsable we’ve been laser focused on only participating in pilots with truly compelling use cases that have tangible outcomes. For example, this could include assembly inspections where a large piece of equipment needs to be manipulated with both hands, or during Lockout/Tagout (LOTO) when more than one control has to be maneuvered simultaneously. 

Third, the investment is greater than people realize, both in terms of the time and money spent to get this off the ground. At Augmented World Expo (AWE) 2019, a company claimed to have spent more than two years with several teams of developers to create a technology to translate CAD drawings to something that their wearable device could consume and render. Most companies don’t have the time and resources to invest in a project like this. 

Our approach, on the other hand, is that if you’ve already invested in digitizing your workflow content through Parsable, it’s ready for use on a wearable device today. We view wearable technology as an “and” conversation and not an “or” conversation, because one hardware solution is not adequate for all use cases. Being able to work on any hardware solution “future-proofs” your current digital investments. We believe the barrier to entry should be the same for everyone, regardless if you’re a small firm or a large, multinational industrial company.

Trends in Wearables

As we closely keep an eye on the wearable technology market, we’ve seen a number of trends – be it augmented reality (Microsoft HoloLens), voice-controlled UI headsets (Realwear) or a health tracker (FitBit). Before you take the plunge and adopt wearable technology, there are a few things you may want to consider: 

  • Typically, wearable companies operate in a silo. They're challenged to drive mass adoption, to identify end-to-end user experiences and to provide a breadth of use cases that justify a return on investment. Wearables companies pressure you to be device specific, locking you into their ecosystem. Why? Because it contributes to the momentum of their proprietary offerings. Unfortunately, this also results in redundant point solutions and saturation of only a few use cases (e.g. remote collaboration). Companies need to build hardware and software with user experience, an application ecosystem and a complete user workflow in mind. We believe this will be the tipping point of adoption.  
  • The investment is greater than most people realize. The resources needed to test, iterate, improve, manage change and deploy at scale (if outcomes can be proven) are substantial. Even if you digitize your workflow processes, it’s still a huge investment in time, money and change management.
  • The time to value can typically be longer than most people realize. There is often a misunderstanding that from the time you implement wearables into your industrial environment, you’ll reap the dividends from your investment immediately. You need to have enough people adopt the technology and give it some time, in order to drive meaningful change. There is a certain level of patience and understanding involved when it comes to proving the value of wearables. You’re investing in something that isn’t ubiquitous yet, and is still evolving.  

Wearable technology is still maturing. It has and will continue to demo well to the C-suite, but has yet to generate a sincere “pull” from the frontline. The foundation for applying wearables (or any technology) effectively is in the groundwork – digitization in this case. Once digitization efforts are far along only then does it make sense to consider implementing wearables into your manufacturing environment, where such tests and evaluations can provide additional insights and outcomes.

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