Will Wearable Sensors Change the Workplace?
A version of this article previously appeared at www.iqs.com.
CLEVELAND, OH — You may be familiar with the general concept of the Internet of Things, but how will this emerging technology impact manufacturing?
Technology pundits continue to portray the Internet of Things as the next “smart” revolution, often compared with the proliferation of smartphones several years ago. “Wearable” sensor technology is one such application of IoT that has potential in a manufacturing setting.
What does IoT mean for quality managers? Will wearable sensors change the workplace?
If you have more questions than tangible answers when discussing IoT in quality management, you are not alone. With the first generation of consumer-grade IoT devices due for release in 2015, you will soon find out if IoT is marketing hype or a viable technology. A working definition of IoT for quality managers is a good place to start the discussion of wearables in the workplace.
From a high-level overview, IoT refers to the next wave of smart devices, a menagerie of web-enabled devices, microelectromechanical sensors (MEMS) and wearable smart products, such as smartwatches. The infamous Google Glass headset is yet another example of consumer-grade IoT, but what about industrial-grade applications of IoT technologies?
You may not know that wearable technology does in fact have applications in the manufacturing industry. The trouble is that these products and the software systems that govern them are still emerging. Experts certainly agree that the market for wearables and IoT products will grow over the next four years, but what remains unanswered is which products will fall flat and which will prove to be practical, particularly in the workplace.
What types of IoT devices would be appropriate for the workplace?
MEMS technologies, specifically, have many theoretical applications in the workplace; however, few (if any) products have stepped to the forefront as viable in an industrial setting. According to some pundits, IoT and wearable sensors will spur the next industrial revolution, allowing manufacturing to integrate data from supply chain management, logistics, warehousing and production. The issue at hand is which IoT technology is appropriate for your workplace.
Aside from Google Glass, “smartglasses” may have practical applications in the workplace. The whole idea behind smartglasses is to free individuals’ hands and place information directly in the line of sight. In a manufacturing setting, smartglasses could potentially obsolesce the need for computers on the shop floor as workers essentially become a walking, talking array of sensors, collecting myriad data automatically.
MEMS technology, for example, can collect a never-ending stream of data, which may not necessarily be a good thing. One application of wearable sensor technology is to embed MEMS in vests. Wearing this “smartvest,” you could theoretically automate the collection of environmental data, such as humidity levels and temperature, directly from the shop floor in real time.
Similarly, smartvests may help you monitor the safety of machinists and other operators who perform hazardous tasks. Imagine a worker in a petroleum processing factory receiving a hazard warning if toxic chemicals are released accidentally. A few extra seconds of warning could potentially save lives.
What challenges do wearable sensors pose for quality managers?
As you might expect, automated data collection is the main application of wearable sensors in the workplace, particularly in the manufacturing industry. What you must guard against is creating more silos of data and systems that do not play well together. Surely, IoT in manufacturing has much potential, but you must have a realistic view of this emerging technology.
In one manner of speaking, wearables and IoT are merely an extension of the mobile revolution. Today, enterprises are still growing accustomed to deploying feature-rich tablets and industrial smartphone applications. What will happen when wearables are added to the equation? The honest answer is that no one knows quite yet how IoT will integrate with other mobile technologies.
Enterprises must solve the big-data puzzle since over the next few years, the ability to collect and analyze a deluge of data will become commonplace. Your task as a quality manager is to ensure that your company is ready to meet the challenge IoT poses alongside the dueling forces of cloud, mobile and big data. As such, deploying enterprise quality management software (EQMS) steps forward as one way to prepare your systems.
As you can see, IoT and wearable sensor technologies do indeed have several applications in the workplace. IoT at its fundamental level is about data collection and analysis, which ideally liberates workers from the tyranny of smartphones. As such, deploying EQMS is one way to integrate IoT data with your quality management system automatically.