Even Industry 4.0 is not possible without manual labor. In the future, however, this will be more productive, safer and more ergonomic thanks to the use of wearables.
“A customer can have a car painted any color he wants as long as it’s black.” Henry Ford said this around 100 years ago. Nowadays, there are virtually no limits when it comes to customers’ customization requirements. Digitization makes this possible. And machines, robots and algorithms with artificial intelligence are taking over more and more tasks. However, they do not compete with industrial workers – they provide support. And the wearables designed for consumer use are increasingly providing communication between people and machines. According to AT Kearney, they will fundamentally change the way manufacturing processes work and could increase productivity by 25 percent.
A recent study by Frost&Sullivan comes to the same conclusion. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) along with greater use of real-time data, monitoring and tracking in day-to-day production make wearable technologies indispensable in the industrial sector. In many areas, the new technologies have already gone through the concept phase and are ready to be used. “Wearable sensor platforms with a wireless connection” are therefore about to make the jump to the top league.
Frost & Sullivan recognizes RealWear, Inc. with the 2017 North America New Product Innovation Award for its HMT-1 wearable computer.
And the possible applications are virtually unlimited. Industrial wearables are no longer restricted to smart watches, data glasses or intelligent bracelets. Caps, shoes and gloves too with innovative sensor technology, voice recognition, vision aids or touch-sensitive features are finding their way into factory halls.
The first intelligent glove for Industry 4.0, ProGlove, makes it easier to dispatch parts thanks to an integrated barcode scanner.
Computer systems just a few centimeters in size such as the Intel® Curie™ module can be integrated into clothing or other items of equipment. And tiny wireless and storage systems such as RFID chips could theoretically be implanted under the skin.
Industrial wearables are expensive
Although the benefits of the devices are undisputed, acceptance of them within the industrial sector could be better. The significant investments and limited support for existing platforms are the main reasons for this.
Nevertheless, Frost&Sullivan expects highly disruptive developments in the market in the next two to five years. As digitization progresses, the current industrial sector will become a “smart” industry with internal users and external customers connected to the supply chain. Thanks to human-machine interfaces, productivity, user awareness and working conditions will all improve.
In the industrial field, smart watches, fitness or health bracelets, portable mobile cameras, intelligent glasses and head-mounted displays for augmented reality are already in use. Promising technologies for the future include ring sensors for environmental monitoring, electronic wearable displays on the skin and even headbands for monitoring brain activities in order to boost concentration or restfulness.
Productivity is not everything
Naturally, increasing productivity is an important reason for using new technologies at any company. Indeed, more than half of an industrial workday is believed to be spent “unproductively.” However, the same attention should be paid to the issue of safety. Studies show that in the USA 13 industrial workers are the victims of accidents every day. Assembly and maintenance technicians for example often work in high-risk environments. Industrial wearables could improve safety simply because they require only minimal manual operation, leaving workers’ hands free for doing their actual work. They also act as early warning systems by monitoring location, pressure or ambient air on a permanent basis. For example, intelligent protective clothing with integrated sensors could raise the alarm immediately in the event of a fall or other unusual movements.
Wearables with intelligence
Experts are assuming that the combination of artificial and human intelligence will play a particularly important role in leveraging the true potential of Industry 4.0. In order for this to be possible, intelligent forms of human-machine interfaces must also be created.
A current project being carried out by the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) is looking at a different type of critical “movements”. Working together with Hitachi, an AI technology which will be able to recognize early on critical actions and device errors on the production line on the basis of viewing angle and movement sensors is being developed. In the process, deep learning algorithms process data exclusively from a pair of eye tracking glasses and bracelet sensors. The combination of visual attention data (eye tracking glasses) with physical attention in the form of specific muscle activities (sensor bracelet) makes it possible to identify specific actions such as “turning a screw” or “pressing a switch” as part of an “inspection task.” This will now be developed further in an industrial setting in order to optimize working processes where intelligent assistance and error recognition are particularly important.
As part of Industry 4.0, simple tasks will be increasingly automated and complex activities will be supported through modern IoT technologies such as industrial wearables. These are still in “test mode” in an industrial setting. However, the initial results show that they have the potential to improve productivity and safety.
Learn more about networked embedded systems and artificial intelligence at the electronica Cyber Physical Systems Conference (CPS).