Manufacturing and production systems can be described as an interplay of different agents – including machinery, warehouses, and transport systems. All processes will run smoothly if everything is perfectly aligned. Therefore, connectivity is a critical factor that allows for the exchange of information in these cyber-physical units.
A very traditional, yet widespread view would look upon these systems as only consisting of industrial devices, software and information technology. System design and outside control are what the human “worker” contributes to this scenario.
While this view may only be natural, there are many reasons as to why you can increasingly consider human workers to be an integral part of these systems. This approach not only helps to better understand today’s industry, it also adds significance to the interaction between man and machine.
Interaction between humans and machine
It goes without saying that humans fundamentally differ from all other components of these cyber-physical systems. Accordingly, the protection of their lives, dignity and rights always requires top priority. Humans can and will make independent decisions, adapt, and learn new things fairly quickly. Machines on the other hand typically perform only a very specific step at a time; adding something new tends to come at the expense of considerable effort and resources.
Knowledge, experience, intelligence and agility make people unique and – in many ways – indispensable. This applies even more to production methods that focus on flexibility rather than efficiency. Human workers can combine system information with background expertise in order to make professional, appropriate, and spontaneous decisions. Moreover, humans can also immediately implement these decisions. This combination of analytical ability and hands-on skills is what represents the outstanding value of human labor in the production process.
Production processes tend to be complex, and are subject to numerous desirable and undesirable variables. Therefore, unscheduled minor and major events need to be expected at any time. Humans bring in the spontaneity and flexibility to address these issues effectively – machines and robots don’t. It is as easy as that.
That said, it is clear that man machine collaboration is a key objective for industrial thought leaders to address, and enterprise wearables may be instrumental in making significant progress in that respect.
Yet industrial wearable technology in business is a fairly recent trend. Consumer wearables on the other hand are quite well established. Yet sales of wearables continue to grow strongly. According to the market research and consulting firm IDC, in 2018 alone approximately 172 million wearables were sold worldwide, most of them fitness bracelets and smartwatches. The year before global sales accounted for 135 million units.
Enterprise wearables, a digital assistant in the workplace
By definition enterprise wearables can be described as digital assistance systems directly worn on the body. Examples include body-worn electronic devices that can exchange data via the corporate network. Smart data glasses for instance are used in the so-called pick-by-vision system. Head-mounted displays can be found in smart production lines, maintenance or remote assistance sites to guide and support employees in their work processes. Other examples include vests, shoes, and glove barcode scanners.
Wearable technology certainly goes beyond simple I/O requirements. In fact, it is about meaningful interaction rather than just pressing buttons, and reading from miniature displays. Ultimately, this is an attempt at raising the degree of integration, and most certainly extend it to include the so-called Internet of Things. This will not only provide for more efficiency, ergonomy, and quality, it will also promote workers safety.