Using AR/VR for Assurance in Insurance

I recently watched a Netflix documentary about the Fyre Festival. Two things from the story really stuck with me: 1) Festival owner Billy McFarland failed to get festival insurance; and 2) He couldn’t (or wouldn’t) listen to reason, as multiple people told him it would be impossible to pull off such an ambitious festival in under six months. At one point, someone tried to show Billy – using a map spread out on a table – that the island venue could not accommodate the number of festivalgoers and luxury villas that had already sold. While watching, I thought about Virtual Reality, not because it’s my job but because immersive technologies might have prevented the disaster that Fyre Festival turned out to be. What if those around Billy had used VR to snap him out of his delusions? Or what if Billy had tried to get festival insurance? Might an insurance agent have used VR to “preview” the festival and ultimately denied coverage? Perhaps that would have convinced Billy to cancel the event.

The insurance industry is, in fact, exploring virtual as well as augmented reality for a number of applications, including risk assessment, accident recreation, remote claims handling, and customer education. AR/VR may also be a solution to the insurance sector’s labor concerns and the answer to rising customer experience expectations.

State of the Insurance Industry

Insurance companies are not exempt from digital disruption or the need to create a more flexible and even virtual workforce for the digital age. As some manual and traditional industry tasks become automated, insurers will need to both recruit and upgrade their talent at a time when the labor market is incredibly tight. This is especially true for the tech, data science and actuarial labor pool (Deloitte). Furthermore, employees impacted by automation as well as Baby Boomers with irreplaceable institutional knowledge will need to be repurposed, which means retraining and leveraging cutting-edge technology to facilitate remote expert mentoring of new workers.

The traditional insurer-insured relationship can be boiled down to a monthly bill or claims submission when something goes wrong; but today’s insurance customers – many of whom are millennials – want more: More convenience and more personalization in the insurance buying and claims processes. Consumers want more control over their coverage through digital channels; they want insurers to leverage advanced sensors and analytics for tracking trends and results that will lower their payments (as in auto and homeowner’s insurance), and they want more innovative and hybrid types of coverage. These and other new expectations are clashing with the long-established culture of the insurance industry, pressuring companies to look for technology that appeals to a new generation of adults seeking insurance.

Applications for AR/VR in Insurance with Real-life Use Cases

Though the insurance sector is usually slow to adopt new technology, augmented and virtual reality are beginning to show up in the ways insurers market and provide their services. Insurance companies are exploring AR/VR as part of marketing strategies, for educating clients, to estimate damage, for employee training, and more:


Customer-facing Applications:

Insurance is a large and valuable market; and with new players offering fast, efficient, digital services, it’s also a fiercely competitive one. Traditional insurers are turning to technology – both the enabler and accelerator of digital transformation – to stay relevant to a changing customer base:

Explaining Insurance Plans

AR/VR can make the complex process of buying insurance easier by simulating real-life situations to showcase the value of various life, health and other coverage plans. Far more powerful than a brochure, website or salesperson, immersive simulations can drive home the need to save for retirement, simplify pension planning, etc.

Consumer Education / Risk Mitigation

In a similar vein, AR/VR can be used to warn clients about dangers and help them prevent the need to file a claim. By allowing insurers to demonstrate both common and exceptional risks in a virtual, risk-free environment, immersive simulations can improve the safety practices of different types of policyholders. For instance, doctors could use VR to practice on a new machine before using it with real patients, employees could learn to identify workplace risks, and homeowners could learn to prevent floods and fires.

Insurers are also toying with VR incident management and training programs that would give customers a fairer rate (ex. virtual driving tests for auto insurance). After successfully completing such a program, the customer would send her results to her insurance agent, verifying her enrollment and qualifying her for discounts (reduced premiums).

Marketing and Customer Engagement

With the ubiquity of AR-capable smartphones, companies today are increasingly incorporating AR into their brand apps and other marketing strategies. Insurers are no exception: AR experiences and VR simulations that create awareness about the importance of buying different types of insurance are part of new marketing and customer engagement plans. In general, insurers are looking to attract and retain new and existing customers by providing informational and entertaining content. This represents a significant move away from the usually distant or aloof position of an insurance company vis-à-vis its clients.

Customer Service

One way to improve the customer experience is to increase an organization’s operational efficiency; for instance, faster order picking in a warehouse leads to faster delivery and higher customer satisfaction. Another way is to focus on those times the customer directly interacts with the business. In insurance, these times are when a customer purchases a coverage plan, files a claim, or contacts support.

In addition to helping consumers understand insurance plans, AR/VR can provide real-time guidance to policyholders on how to fill out claim forms, resolve billing issues, and more. Some insurers are experimenting with virtual customer service (like a virtual support center) and enabling policyholders to interact with adjusters and begin documenting damage in real time through AR. Whether it’s through an individual’s mobile camera or, one day, smart glasses, adjusters can be “on the scene” with the policyholder, reviewing the damages, even taking exact measurements; allowing for faster and more accurate documentation of loss and faster case resolution.


Employee-facing or Operational Applications:

The game of insurance is about risk avoidance, the goal being to convert consumers and businesses into policyholders while driving down claims. AR/VR can be an effective tool for reaching these goals, not just through customer education but also by improving employee performance, making insurance workers shrewder and more efficient:

(Ongoing) Risk Assessment

AR/VR open a number of new capabilities for risk assessors to reduce cost and loss ratios. As mentioned above, auto insurers are considering administering virtual driving tests to determine whether someone is a safe driver before insuring them. VR is also being used to model risk: Assessors can navigate a building before it’s built, thereby improving insurance estimates, and better judge the safety of, say, a warehouse by simulating potential accidents within and evaluating the locations of exit doors and stairs. During risk inspections, assessors could use smart glasses to instantly document and record notes hands-free, and to connect with remote experts who might point out weak spots by augmenting the user’s field of view.

The Internet of Things (ex. smart automobiles, smart homes, etc.) is huge for insurance, enabling predictive analysis and preemptive actions that should reduce the number of high-frequency, low-impact claims. This paves the way for innovative insurance models, like plans that trigger based upon forecasts of loss as opposed to an actual event. Insurers might also use the wealth of data from IoT technologies along with statisticians to visualize and analyze complex data sets in a virtual setting.

Damage Estimation

Most early use cases of immersive tech in insurance come from the property and casualty side of the industry. This is because AR/VR present the ideal tool for safely recreating real-life disasters and estimating repair costs. Through the use of digital building plans and real-time sensor information overlaid on top of a damaged building, AR glasses-wearing agents can carefully review the damage on-site, doing things like seeing behind walls to determine the location of gas lines and other critical or hazardous objects.

Claims adjusters can overlay images of a building’s pre-loss condition for comparison, document damaged areas hands-free (useful for later VR accident simulations) and confer with remote experts. This makes it possible to more precisely estimate damage and process claims quicker, which, of course, pleases customers. AR glasses also allow for remote damage assessments, where an adjuster shares the view of a colleague at the incident site (wearing smart glasses) or looks through the customer’s mobile device to assess the damage without physically being there.

Remote Guidance and Employee Training

Accenture has found that 85% of insurance executives are interested in leveraging AR/VR solutions to bridge the physical and informational distance between newer and experienced employees and between agents and customers. This is especially key in the training of claims processors, who have one of the most important jobs in the industry (investigating claims). As studies show that people learn and retain information better when it’s presented in context over their real-world view, insurance employees should be able to train faster and more effectively “by doing” whether in a virtual environment or via AR-powered remote guidance on the job.

Indeed, leading insurers are finding AR/VR great for training agents at a lower cost, giving them virtual experience that raises their confidence and the accuracy of their work. Immersive training programs can also help insurance agencies prepare employees to work in specific sectors (ex. auto insurance reps learning about engine repair; home insurance reps learning about maintenance lifecycles), so they can make more informed decisions and offer policy-specific recommendations to clients. Remote technical experts might also provide a second pair of eyes, training agents in real time using AR.

Visual Claims and the Claims Process

Alluded to above is the potential for AR/VR to enhance and speed up claims processing by unlocking new methods for evaluating claims and detecting fraud in the field. With AR, multiple agents are no longer required to visit the claim site; just one employee equipped with smart glasses can go, while experts look on, inspecting damages and calculating losses remotely from the office. The time and money saved leads to greater employee efficiency and higher customer satisfaction. Customers themselves can serve in this role using an AR-enabled mobile device or perhaps smart glasses received upon purchasing a policy.

Policyholders are becoming fans of visual insurance claims, which promise more efficient claims processing and quicker payment. AR-powered video solutions can expedite claim settlements by enabling remote inspections at the First Notice of Loss and reducing adjustors’ time in the field (thereby lowering overhead). Customers can show a contact center agent the cause and extent of, say, a car crash, through a live video connection; giving the agent immediate, real-time access to information, including valuable pieces of temporary information like road conditions, vehicle position, skid marks, etc. This significantly shortens the claims process, eliminating not only the usual site visit but also any lengthy back-and-forth communication between agent and customer. The result: More accurate appraisals and faster resolution time.


Conclusion:

The transition from old industry methods to new ways of working with augmented reality will produce a more efficient and cost-effective insurance marketplace, transforming the ways agents interact with customers, enforce policies, and assess claims. Moreover, business and personal use of AR/VR technologies will open new categories of risk exposure leading to entirely new types of insurance.

End Users Share Real Challenges of Wearable Tech Software

Finger Food Studios’ Graham Cunliffe leads a panel discussing the current state of the enterprise wearable market and the challenges of deploying business-ready wearable applications. Graham is joined by Caterpillar’s Jeff Lind, Southwest Airlines’ Chris Grubbs, Walmart’s Steven Lewis and United Technologies’ Peggy Wu. They discuss the considerations that help an organization determine appropriate software solutions. Common pain points include the scalability and portability of solutions across devices and the relative lack of off-the-shelf solutions. The panelists guide us through resolving functionality gaps for end users, the difficulties of establishing and navigating software partnerships with vendors, and the handling of data within the enterprise for seamless integration across digital platforms.

Insider Secrets to Adopting Wearables

Watch this throwback 2016 expert panel led by Upskill’s Brian Ballard, in which enterprise end users from Jacobs Engineering, Powerstream Inc., the AES Corporation, and Intel share their secrets to adopting wearables. Some key insights include referring to the people closest to the problem (i.e. the workers), getting them involved early in the process and allowing them to opt in; creating a partnership between the business and IT sides of your organization; and talking to the standards bodies for your industry from the get-go. In addition, don’t underestimate the impact on your company’s infrastructure, as content and information management are key challenges in this space, especially when it comes to AR.

The Definitive BrainXchange Guide to Adopting Wearables, AR and VR in Enterprise

Introduction

In 2015, the newly-formed BrainXchange put together the first-ever event devoted to the business and industrial use of wearable technologies. Back then, the team was taking a risk on a category of technology that seemed promising only if you read between the lines of the numerous articles talking about “Glassholes” and fitness trackers. There have now been five Enterprise Wearable Technology Summits, with a sixth scheduled for September 2019.

Over the last four years, BrainXchange and the EWTS community have grown together and witnessed the birth of a fourth industrial revolution that promises to make humans more agile, connected, and mobile than ever before. During that time, we spoke with thousands of enterprise innovators and decision makers about their wearable tech and extended reality efforts; and saw numerous use cases and next-generation platforms influenced by the early adopters who got on the EWTS stage to share their stories. What follows is knowledge resulting from BrainXchange’s experience in the space and specifically with enterprise end users themselves.


Steps and Best Practices for Successful Adoption

POC/EVALUATION STAGE:

So, you’ve discovered smart glasses and see their potential; or, you’ve been directed to look into wearable technologies to stay competitive—where do you start?

STEP ONE: IDENTIFY AN ENTRY POINT

The first step is also the most important and difficult one: Choosing a use case. Early adopters agree that the best practice is to engage with end users. Go into the field or onto the factory floor and interview frontline workers, the ones who will actually wear the technology. Ask employees outright about their pain points using the guiding questions below; and even consider setting up a kind of innovation hub where employees can try out different technologies on their own and imagine what they might do with them. Let users tell you where they find value for the technology.

Guiding Questions (ask of end users):

  • What tools and methods do you use to access task-based information, get help from others, record or verify your work, and interact with customers? Do you have any complaints about the tools you currently use on the job or the workflow for a particular task?
  • Do you find yourself at times fumbling with devices and manuals when you need both hands to work?
  • Have you come up with any makeshift solutions or hacks to speed up your own work, make your job easier, or make yourself more comfortable on the job?
  • When you encounter a problem, how do you report it? Do you have to leave your work area to tell someone? Do you find yourself communicating the issue multiple times? Do you typically wait around for someone to look at or fix the issue for you?
  • Are there times vital information is not at the ready or delivered to you in an inconvenient manner? Are there times you wish the directions for a task were right in front of you?
  • Do you have to remember a lot of information for certain tasks? How do you commit that information to memory?
  • What kind of training did you undergo for your job? How was the training carried out? Do you think it was adequate? Can you still recall your training or do you feel you learned mostly on the job through trial and error?
  • Are there times you feel your safety or performance is at risk due to cognitive stress, physical strain, or other factors in the work environment? Would on-demand information and support, glanceable safety alerts, or real-time biometric and environmental data help you feel more situationally aware?

More Guiding Questions (ask of the business):

  • Where in the business do workers still rely on paper instructions, lists, manuals, or schematics? Could you digitize this information and deliver it to users via a wearable?
  • For which tasks are hand-held devices used and does it interfere with hands-on work?
  • Which tasks require point-of-work instructions? Where is the needed information located, in what format, and how do workers access it? Is information retrieval ergonomically in line with the task? Could the information be made more readily available to the worker?
  • Do workers have to fill out forms or perform manual data entry for any tasks?
  • Which tasks require documentation or record keeping for compliance, proof of service, or quality assurance? How is it done and how much of the worker’s time does it consume? Is reporting standardized or is there room for misinterpretation? Are workers limited in any way in recording information?
  • Do employees need to put down what they’re doing or walk away from their work to record data, file a report, or get assistance? When do workers wait on SMEs to solve a problem?
  • What factors delay repair of equipment and vehicles?
  • Which jobs involve a high level of customization or variability, with different instructions for every variation? Does this slow workers down or lead to errors?
  • For which tasks do workers carry heavy loads, work in non-ergonomic positions, or perform repetitive tasks?
  • Which tasks could be performed remotely to save time and money? (Not just remote guidance but also remote inspections, design reviews, customer service, etc.)
  • Other tasks to consider:
    • Tasks with many simple steps
    • Tasks for which the company doesn’t provide much training
    • Tasks for which employees need to read instructions while working
    • Tasks where small errors can have big consequences
    • Tasks with a shortage of qualified workers

Even more:

  • Are you using the best and fastest training methods for a shrinking, multigenerational workforce? Are trainees engaged, and do they remember their training in the real work setting?
  • Do workers need to train for dangerous situations or anomalies that are hard or undesirable to simulate in real life?
  • How do you preserve the knowledge of veteran workers near retirement? What is the onboarding process for new hires? Is employee retention a problem?
  • Are you a global company? How do employees across the company work together or share complex information (telepresence, face-to-face meetings, etc.)?
  • Where are your customers and partners based and how do they interact with the business?
  • Do any aspects of the business suffer from poor planning and communication among stakeholders?
  • Is there a backlog in any area of the business?

The two most common and proven points of entry for enterprise wearables are vision picking and remote support with smart glasses. There are plenty of real-life pilots and rollouts you can use as examples. You can also look at prior years’ safety, uptime, quality, etc. data (if you have that information available) to pinpoint sources of error, injury, fatigue, paid travel, rework, machine/worker downtime, profit loss, and customer dissatisfaction.

Be realistic! You may only have one chance to prove your case, so make sure it’s based upon a real business problem and that those closest to the problem have input. The simplest use cases like ditching a hand-held scanner for a wearable one can have tremendous impact.


STEP TWO: NAVIGATE THE SOLUTION STACK

After you’ve identified a high-value use case with a low barrier of entry (not overly complex), familiarize yourself with the market. Talk to vendors; try out as many different devices as you can. You might also consult with an analyst or team up with a university or industry association. There are many product offerings out there and while each one has a role to play in someone’s business, it might not be right for your particular use case.

Some things to remember:

  • The use case determines your choice of hardware (not the other way around)
  • The device has to fit the use case, satisfy the end user’s needs, and meet industry requirements
  • Wearables aren’t right or necessary for every worker, task or area of the business

To narrow down the options, ask what device abilities or features are needed for the use case. For example, a good camera and connectivity are necessary for remote support; a lightweight device for long shifts. Get feedback from users. To demystify the technology, consider hosting events for employees to test devices. You might start out with a more familiar form factor or even a consumer wearable if you need immediate buy-in (ex. starting with mobile AR on smartphones and tablets before introducing smart glasses). You can also test multiple devices for comparison; just factor this into your pilot plan.

There is an ecosystem of mature partners and support in place; so in addition to a software partner, you may require the assistance of a systems integrator like Accenture or Deloitte or a security solution provider like airwatch or Augmate. As the wearable technology market is constantly changing, there is also a chance that the hardware you choose today will be obsolete two years from now. Ask if the hardware is scalable and make sure multiple platforms are supported on the software side.

BONUS: Which device for which application?

  • Hands-free (heads-up) information
    • From an ERP system (requires system integration) – Smart glasses
    • Safety alerts and task prompts – (monocular) Smart glasses, smartwatch
    • Documentation and recording – Smart glasses, some smartwatches, body cameras
    • Verification (typically requires object/visual recognition capability) – Smart glasses
  • Remote viewing
    • Remote support (requires front-facing camera and connectivity) – Smart glasses
    • Remote collaboration (more interactive) – Augmented Reality glasses, Mixed Reality headset, Virtual Reality headset (for virtual meeting spaces)
  • Design and asset visualization – XR (AR, VR, MR) headset (requires 3D content)
    • Visualization of machine or other complex data
    • Building/layout planning
    • Design and process reviews
    • Product development
  • Training – XR glasses/headsets
    • AR glasses for on-the-job learning through step-by-step instructions, digital content overlay, or remote teacher
    • MR headset for training on real equipment
    • VR headset for more immersive training simulations
  • Sales
    • Bringing the sales pitch to the customer – MR/VR headset
    • Visualizing product or project options – XR headset
    • Enabling remote shopping – Smart glasses (worn by sales associate)
    • Marketing (virtual or remote tours, in-store experiences) – XR headset
  • Service
    • B2B customer can instantly and remotely connect to an SME at HQ – Smart glasses (worn by customer)
    • Creating a more personalized customer experience by delivering information to the employee at the point of sale – Smart glasses, smartwatch
    • Streaming or recording first-person video on the job for customer’s remote observation – Smart glasses
  • Safety
    • Tracking employee biometrics and environmental factors – Body-worn sensors (embedded in a variety of form factors)
    • Physical behavior modification (monitors user’s form and provides alerts, haptic or otherwise) – Body-worn (ergonomic) sensors
    • Support for physically-demanding tasks – Partial or full exoskeleton 

Develop Internally or Partner?

Today, the enterprise wearable technology ecosystem has matured to the point where most hardware companies have multiple software partners and many software solutions work on a variety of devices (including smartphones and tablets). If you have a particular device in mind, check out the companies that vendor has partnered with. You can also benchmark with peers and use resources like the annual Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit and the EnterpriseWear Blog to educate yourself about the space before committing to a solution. It is important to find a software partner who understands your needs and will work with you to overcome challenges at every step.

If you are thinking about developing internally, do not take content for granted. Become familiar with common software engines and don’t underestimate the development or integration effort that will be required. If not working with an external partner, make sure it’s a turnkey solution with OTA updates that doesn’t require building an application from scratch, supports a broad range of hardware and use cases, and has self-service capabilities allowing you to add functionality and update content without relying on the solution provider.

Locate or Create Content

Content creation is a common bottleneck especially for XR (AR, VR, MR) applications in the enterprise. Most non-AEC organizations do not have existing computer-generated content that easily translates into wearable AR/VR applications. Lack of content can rack up costs and delay adoption, even force you back to step one, so before proceeding to the pilot phase determine your content needs.

The ideal situation is to repurpose existing digital content: Take inventory of the company’s existing digital information stores. What ERP information or external data sources could the wearable solution tap into? What 3D digital assets could you obtain from OEMs or engineers in other areas of the business? What information do workers currently rely upon to perform the task in question; do you have the capacity to digitize this information in-house? If not, who do you need to hire or partner with?

Most enterprises begin with basic textual overlays or static visualizations of 3D models in a heads-up display. More dynamic, contextual AR experiences and highly immersive VR experiences have to be built from scratch, requiring specialized expertise; while experiences anchored to specific objects or places (ex. pieces of equipment, locations in a warehouse) require special markers or more advanced object recognition technology.

The good news is that vendors are trying to make content creation easier for non-programmers. Companies are taking advantage of new drag-and-drop authoring platforms, using 3D scanning, and capturing content with 360-degree video. If you hire a developer, look for someone with a strong foundation in programming (not necessarily someone with XR experience). When selecting a partner, keep systems integration and content maintenance in mind. 


STEP THREE: GET BUY-IN

You’ve engaged with end users, chosen a use case, narrowed down a wearable device, and partnered with a software provider. To go any further, you will need the support of IT, EHS, and/or other department(s) in the organization to determine operational factors and work around barriers. Turn these business units into stakeholders with a sense of ownership in the project. If you require content owned by an OEM or someone else in the business, tell them why you need the content. A lot of pushback is rooted in fear of new technologies making our jobs obsolete. Make it personal, explaining the potential benefits of the use case to the business, to the team, and to the individual worker.

Getting employee buy-in (push vs. pull):

  • Give employees the chance to be hands-on with the technology. Be mindful that this may be many workers’ first contact with wearables/XR.
  • Explain the benefits to them: Help workers understand what the technology will do for them, how it will make their jobs easier. You may need to engage differently with the older workforce than you do with younger employees.
  • Manage perceptions: Provide a forum to hear and address employee concerns and misconceptions. Find your champions in respected workers who can help socialize the technology internally. Make champions of opponents by taking the time to find out what they really fear.
  • Consider distributing surveys for feedback, bringing in outside experts to assuage fears, making pilot participation voluntary, and anonymizing any user data collected by the technology.
  • If your use case involves collecting data on employees (or is perceived to do so), clearly explain how the information will be used, stored, protected, and managed. Also explain how the data will not be used (ex. for punitive purposes), where and for how long it will be stored, and the options for permanently deleting the data.

When you have IT and other business units on board along with pull from employees, making your case to management is easier. Of course, pilots don’t just happen; they require financing which may be out of your control. By now, securing a preliminary budget to evaluate wearable technologies (obtaining devices, attending events) shouldn’t be difficult. There are, again, plenty of use cases out there you can share with superiors to bolster your case. Wearables are no longer fringe technology; even AR/VR has come more into the mainstream, and your competitors may already be using the tech.

Making the business case is really presenting a hypothesis. Here are some tips:

  • Present the use case and how the wearable will improve the way the job is currently done. Connect the wearable solution to real business outcomes like productivity, time savings, sales conversions, etc.
  • Invite C-level representatives to try out the technology themselves, and to sit in on meetings with vendors and end users.
  • Explain how the technology could (hypothetically) pay for itself while also communicating that trials are critical to working out problems and vulnerabilities and may involve lesson-teaching failures.
  • Assuage any security and viability concerns: You’re working closely with IT and your software partner has a good track record and flexible solution. There are ways to work around potential issues. (Ex. a very common workaround is to deploy a wearables-only wireless network in order to get going without exposing the main network. If you have sensitive, proprietary data, avoid the cloud and keep the solution on-site.)
  • If you need a slam-dunk use case, consider choosing one in which the solution is self-contained. Take advantage of the basic features of smart glasses (hands-free, front-facing camera) to make small but significant improvements; go with simple software that doesn’t require much maintenance; etc. 

PILOT PHASE:

STEP ONE: PILOT SETUP: DETERMINE LIMITS and REQUIREMENTS

Determine all the operational factors that need to be accounted for in a real deployment, including:

  • Security
  • Connectivity
  • Safety
  • Usability
  • Device Management
  • Training
  • Content Creation
  • System Integration

Given these factors, what needs to be addressed, worked around, created or changed before the pilot begins? If you brought in the right people within the business in the POC phase, these factors should not pose roadblocks. You should also benchmark with others in the industry and study pilot programs for similar use cases at other organizations.


STEP TWO: SET THE PILOT PARAMETERS

  • Pilot size: How many workers will participate? How will they be selected and grouped? How many devices will be tested? How will these be acquired, paid for, and managed?
  • Pilot location: Where will the pilot take place? In just one facility or at multiple sites? Are there any aspects of the pilot environment or site that might interfere with use? Have you accounted for industry safety requirements and other regulations? Review with data privacy, security and compliance teams.
  • Pilot duration: How long will the pilot be active? (Three to six months is ideal for the actual pilot. Keep in mind that setting up the pilot and working through IT security and other issues can take many months.)
  • Pilot results: Prepare to measure results and gather feedback. What KPIs will be tracked? How will results be measured? Work with stakeholders to define pilot objectives and agree on a method of measuring success. Consider adding additional sensing technology (ex. to track heart rate, stress, satisfaction) to more accurately assess user response and engagement.

Pilot Best Practices:

Begin with a small, manageable deployment of one or two groups of volunteers—ideally workers representing a range of age groups with varying levels of experience in the industry. Prepare these pilot participants by training them on the solution beforehand and provide lineside support, whether from your software partner or a fellow worker who gets the technology. Remember that no plan survives first execution intact; expect the pilot to change course when something doesn’t work the way you planned and be ready to adapt and learn something from it. Test the technology in an iterative fashion, making observations and capturing lessons to improve over time, and get continuous feedback. Look out for weak points and vulnerabilities in the use case, hardware issues, software glitches, and other changes that will need to be worked out before the rollout phase.


STEP THREE: MEASURE ROI and DEFINE SUCCESS

Extracting numbers and percentages from these pilots is difficult, especially when there are a lot of factors to the KPI. Take efficiency: Many variables impact workplace efficiency, so how do you determine the percentage effect of introducing a wearable? How do you measure productivity or retention of knowledge over the short lifespan of a pilot program? In this early stage, there are few long-term studies of wearables in the workplace to go on. It will take further adoption and more time for that research to develop.

ROI is not the only relevant factor in determining the success of a pilot or justifying further use of wearables. Success shows up in more ways than a dollar return, such as improved employee or customer satisfaction. You should be looking for both quantifiable and qualifiable ROI. Workers’ comfort and quality of life are important KPIs that you can track in many cases more easily than increased uptime or reduced risk of injury due to wearable technology. Consider less calculable, even emotional indicators; and interview pilot participants to uncover non-numerical improvements like reduced strain and better focus. Do not disregard the impact on non-users who could experience indirect benefits down the line, as well.

You can have a strong thesis even without a lot of hard evidence. For instance, replacing a bulky handheld barcode scanner with a hands-free wearable is an obvious enhancement. If you require more exact ROI, set up a controlled experiment or situation comparing the wearable solution with the old technology among two groups of similar users performing the same task. You can also conduct time trials and review past data to compare travel costs, number of errors, etc.

 


CONCLUSION

The wearable journey is one of discovery; if you don’t move on wearable and immersive technologies today, you will lose opportunities your competitors will seize. This guide should help you get started on the right track, so you can fail faster and rebound quicker on your way to a full-blown deployment.

 

photo credit: nodstrum Man with VR headset looking away at the objects – Credit to https://www.lyncconf.com/ via photopin (license)

Challenges of Enterprise Wearables, AR and VR: A Changing Landscape, Budget, Battery, and More

In this largely Q&A-driven panel discussion from last month’s EWTS 2018, Tacit’s Todd Boyd and members of the audience question IT leaders from Worthington Industries, HB Fuller, Ford, JetBlue and The American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) on the cultural and technical challenges of adopting wearable technologies. Some of the challenges addressed include keeping people engaged, dealing with opponents and a constantly changing hardware landscape, budget and financing, battery life and back-end system integration. Watch now:

 

The Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit (EWTS) is an annual conference dedicated to the use of wearable technology for business and industrial applications. As the leading event for enterprise wearables, EWTS is where enterprises go to innovate with the latest in wearable tech, including heads-up displays, AR/VR/MR, body- and wrist-worn devices, and even exoskeletons. The 6th annual EWTS will be held September 17-19, 2019 in Dallas, TX. More details, including agenda and early confirmed speakers, to come on the conference website.


Augmented World Expo (AWE), the world’s #1 AR+VR conference and expo, returns to Santa Clara, CA May 29-31, 2019. Join us for the biggest AWE yet and help celebrate the show’s 10th Anniversary! Apply to speak and/or exhibit at AWE 2019on the event website.

Build a Culture of Bottom-up Innovation and More Advice for Adopting AR/VR and Wearables

In this video from last month’s Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit in Austin, Upskill’s Brian Ballard leads early wearable tech adopters from Toyota, Duke Energy, Merck and Southern Company in a discussion around strategies for accelerating an organization’s wearable journey. Though the panelists represent very different operating environments; they all agree that an agnostic approach to hardware, end user input and feedback, having systems of bottom-up innovation in place, line-side support during rollout, and room to fail are key components to successful adoption. Enjoy this first-hand advice available nowhere else but EWTS:

 

The Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit (EWTS) is an annual conference dedicated to the use of wearable technology for business and industrial applications. As the leading event for enterprise wearables, EWTS is where enterprises go to innovate with the latest in wearable tech, including heads-up displays, AR/VR/MR, body- and wrist-worn devices, and even exoskeletons. The 6th annual EWTS will be held September 17-19, 2019 in Dallas, TX. More details, including agenda and early confirmed speakers, to come on the conference website.


Augmented World Expo (AWE), the world’s #1 AR+VR conference and expo, returns to Santa Clara, CA May 29-31, 2019. Join us for the biggest AWE yet and help celebrate the show’s 10th Anniversary! Apply to speak and/or exhibit at AWE 2019on the event website.

All the News Out of EWTS 2018

The 2018 Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit took place October 9-10 at The Fairmont in Austin, TX. A number of announcements were made at the event—all great news for the future of enterprise wearable technologies. From new partnerships to global deployments, here are the developments announced at the event:

RealWear Announces That Colgate-Palmolive to Roll Out HMT-1 Hands-Free Wearable Computers to 20 Manufacturing Sites in 11 Countries

Colgate-Palmolive is rolling out RealWear’s voice-operated HMT-1 among hundreds of its mechanics and engineers across 20 of the company’s largest manufacturing facilities in 11 countries. Colgate-Palmolive employees will use the technology to receive support from remote SMEs, equipment suppliers and manufacturing teams, as well as to retrieve and capture documents and video.


Vuzix Receives M300 Follow-On Orders from SATS to Outfit Ramp Handling Operations with Smart Glasses at Changi Airport

SATS, the chief ground-handling and in-flight catering service provider at Singapore Changi Airport, began piloting the Vuzix M300 to increase accuracy and efficiency in its ramp handling operations in mid-2017. The company is now expanding its use of the technology, deploying smart glasses to over 500 employees at Changi Airport. Wearing Vuzix M300 Smart Glasses, workers will be able to receive real-time loading instructions and scan barcodes on luggage and cargo containers, hopefully reducing loading times by up to 15 minutes/flight.


Toshiba Adds Voice Commands and Enhanced Camera Capabilities to Create Vision DE Suite 2.0

Toshiba has upgraded its software engine to include voice commands, enhanced camera capabilities, and other new features. Vision DE Suite 2.0 delivers live video collaboration, photo/video capture and viewing (plus image resolution control), real-time file synchronization and alerts, a remote management console, and flexible controls to dynaEdge AR Smart Glasses users. The upgraded software is now available for purchase, while existing customers will receive a free upgrade.


RealWear Rolls Out Zero-Touch Deployment Solution with RealWear Foresight Cloud Platform

In other RealWear news, the company announced the RealWear Foresight cloud platform with zero-touch deployment, now a built-in feature of the HMT-1 and HMT-1Z1. The solution accelerates early enterprise deployments, allowing RealWear to ship devices directly from its fulfillment centers and organizations to immediately and securely deploy the technology by adding any app from the RealWear app catalog. Companies who’ve optimized their apps for the HMT-1/HMT-1Z1 include HPE, Librestream, PTC, Ubimax, and Upskill.


AMA Partners with Proceedix to provide advanced remote assistance solutions

The integration of XpertEye and Proceedix delivers the most comprehensive solution for remote assistance and work flow support on mobile and wearable devices, maximizing usage and benefits for end users. The alliance of the two solutions is designed for industrial sites with multiple use cases for smart glasses, so that a worker can use the same pair of smart glasses to view heads-up, hands-free work instructions and receive real-time support when needed. See what the CEOs of AMA and Proceedix had to say at EWTS here.


Atheer Announces the World’s First Augmented Reality Management Platform, Creating New Enterprise Software Category

Atheer revealed the “world’s first Augmented Reality Management Platform for industrial enterprises,” a new category of enterprise software aimed at helping companies tackle challenges relating to change, connectivity, talent, and operational complexities. The device-agnostic platform supports natural controls, see-what-I-see video collaboration, digital asset management, contextual awareness, predictive and performance analytics, and more. Aragon Research calls it “an important milestone” for enterprise AR. Check out the White Paper that accompanied the announcement.


Upskill launches support for Microsoft HoloLens

Upskill announced the early release of its AR/MR platform Skylight for Microsoft HoloLens. The move opens up more real estate to display information and extends Skylight into the spatial computing environment, offering a new experience for Skylight customers. Users can use hand gestures and simple gazes to navigate in virtual space and view multiple windows at the same time. Building on HoloLens’ Windows 10 capabilities, the solution securely connects to back-end systems to pull information into the mixed reality environment. Watch the video.


Three trends to watch in enterprise wearables

The Glass team shared their experiences at EWTS 2018 in a blog post, recapping the trends they’ve observed working with their partners and customers. Read it here. Jay Kothari and his team at X, the moonshot factory, say they are continuing to improve Glass based on user feedback.

Embracing Digital Transformation: Real-life Use Cases in Energy & Utilities

A handful of utilities are piloting and, in a few cases, even deploying wearable technologies, but the greatest share of interest is and has been around augmented reality. There is an impressive, concerted effort in the utility space by researchers and vendors to thoroughly investigate the technology to see if it’s safe and a right fit for the industry. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) has taken on a great deal of forward-thinking testing of AR, recognizing that standards will have to be determined if there’s to be widespread adoption.

EPRI

EPRI has been a part of several companies’ efforts to pilot AR in electric and utility operations, including Duke Energy and Con Edison. With Duke, EPRI deployed Atheer’s AiR platform to demonstrate how hands-free AR improves productivity and safety and shortens power outage recovery time. In addition to enhancing power restoration, another possibility is using AR to bridge the techno-generational divide. In other research, EPRI is studying the health and safety impacts of AR on workers, keeping an eye out for risks like eyestrain and reduced situational awareness; and sensor-equipped non-AR wearables that can help keep workers safe.


Duke Energy 

Duke’s emerging technologies unit has been a lead experimenter with augmented reality, trying out multiple tools like Atheer’s AiR platform with EPRI for inventory management and basic equipment maintenance, since 2014. Duke also sees potential for training and remote collaboration/troubleshooting in the field. Duke and EPRI worked with Verizon to simulate a storm response, equipping line workers with RealWear’s HMT-1 which uses GIS to provide critical information for repairing damaged infrastructure (ex. where a downed utility pole should be located). The solution could also send automatic equipment/parts orders to a utility warehouse, saving a lot of time.


Con Edison

EPRI teamed up with the New York utility to test various uses for AR, including substation switching, a task that can be dangerous, disrupt electricity and rack up costs, and substation inspections. Con Ed sees further potential in AR for improving worker safety, grid operations and maintenance.

AR glasses could help Con Ed employees in the field with complex tasks like locating buried transmission infrastructure and then making the necessary repairs. They could use smart glasses to access remote expertise. AR could also prevent errors by pointing workers to the right piece of equipment, showing relevant maintenance history and equipment specifications, etc.  


GE Renewable Energy

GE Renewable Energy successfully trialed Upskill’s Skylight platform for smart glasses to the tune of a 34% improvement in productivity in initial trials. It was, in fact, the first time the workers participating in the trial had ever use smart eyewear. Testing took place at a factory in Pensacola, Florida; where wind turbine assembly workers would have to stop what they were doing to check if they were installing parts correctly, referencing a manual or calling someone to make sure. Wearing glasses that projected digital checklists, diagrams, instructions, images and videos that one would otherwise view on a 2d screen directly in the user’s line of sight; employees were able to work more efficiently. A video released by GE makes a strong case for AR. It shows a side-by-side time-lapse comparison of a technician wiring a wind turbine control box the standard way and that same worker doing the wiring 34% faster guided by AR instructions in his field of view. How quickly hands-free AR glasses could tighten the skills gap!


Siemens

Siemens partnered with DAQRI to study the benefits of augmented reality in gas burner assembly training. The trial focused on different “personas” to see how an AR gas burner training app might affect the performance of different types of workers. At the Siemens Power Service Training Center in Berlin, four workers – two novices, one expert, and one worker who had last done an assembly a year before – participated in the pilot, using the app under realistic conditions. Testing revealed benefits to all the worker personas, reducing training time for new trainees and more experienced employees alike. In addition to accelerating learning time, Siemens believes AR could help avoid errors, streamline data collection, and speed up report generatio.


Scotland’s Fife College

In June 2017, students at Fife College in Scotland, “the next generation of offshore wind turbine technicians,” began learning in the school’s new Immersive Hybrid Reality (iHR) lab. The lab provides highly realistic XR training environments and scenarios that are difficult or impossible to simulate in real life. For instance, an actual offshore wind turbine would be over 325 feet above the water. In the lab, students are able to perform detailed inspections of the top of a virtual 7-megawatt offshore wind turbine – even under changing weather conditions, with the sound of the wind around them – while still seeing their own hands and holding real tools.


Toms River Municipal Utilities Authority

This year, the New Jersey utility piloted vGIS, a geographic information system (GIS) visualization platform by Meenim for visualizing overhead and underground infrastructure with Microsoft’s HoloLens headset. The solution essentially allows the wearer to “see” utility lines in real time (for ex. when digging up a street) and it supports both voice and gesture controls so the user has free use of his hands. Take the scenario of a downed telephone pole in the street; with vGIS, all field personnel are able to see the utilities under their feet, which is critical to planning and maintaining critical infrastructure.


We Energies, Milwaukee

For an industry-backed study including Marquette University, EPRI researchers recently visited a We Energies coal plant to observe workers using both monocular (RealWear) and binocular (HoloLens) AR headsets to perform different jobs. In multiple field tests, special attention was paid to the ergonomics of using AR in an industrial environment, with cameras and sensors monitoring users’ eyes, head, neck and shoulders. The question was whether the headsets would assist or distract/inhibit utility workers, who typically work 12 hours, walk several miles and examine 300 pieces of equipment in a day. We Energies workers seemed to prefer RealWear’s device to view checklists, while the research team is looking forward to when more meters, poles, etc. are connected to the IoT and AR becomes even more useful. More devices will be tested at other sites before the final report is released in 2019.


NYPA

I’ve saved New York Power Authority, the largest state-owned public utility in the country, for last due to its impressive digital roadmap. In December 2017, a utility collaborative on the use of wearables to monitor workers’ health was announced, NYPA included. But NYPA’s interest in emerging tech goes beyond wearables: The utility is aiming to be the first full-scale, all-digital utility with a digitally-enabled workforce. To that end, NYPA is installing sensors, smart meters and other data collecting devices in its customers’ buildings and facilities, creating digital twins of its large clients’ energy systems; the data analytics from these efforts should increase productivity and create new value-added services for NYPA’s customers (like helping them optimize use).

The company has created a smart operation center for its power plants, transmission lines, and substations; here, data like temperature, power loads, vibrations, pressure, emissions, moisture and strain is fed, with the goal of becoming proactive vs. reactive. “Digitizing everything” will allow NYPA to predict problems, reduce unplanned downtime, lower maintenance costs, and minimize operational risks. And how do you bring the workforce into this digital grid? Through Augmented Reality.

 

The Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit (EWTS) is an annual conference dedicated to the use of wearable technology for business and industrial applications. As the leading event for enterprise wearables, EWTS is where enterprises go to innovate with the latest in wearable tech, including heads-up displays, AR/VR/MR, body- and wrist-worn devices, and even exoskeletons. The 5th annual EWTS will be held October 9-11, 2018 at The Fairmont in Austin, TX. For more details, please visit the conference website.


Augmented World Expo (AWE), the world’s #1 AR+VR conference and expo, comes to Munich, Germany on October 18-19, 2018. CXOs, designers, developers, futurists, analysts, investors and top press will gather at the MOC Exhibition Center to learn, inspire, partner and experience first-hand the most exciting industry of our times. Tickets now available at www.aweeu.com.

Empowering the Power Sector: The Use of Wearable and Immersive Tech in Utilities

Today’s power and utility companies are navigating a period of uncertainty: Political, environmental and social pressures are making it critical for the power sector to evolve the technology and business models by which it has traditionally operated. Radical policy changes such as regulation rollbacks and tax reforms, severe weather including historic floods, hurricanes and fires, a rapidly retiring workforce and changing electricity needs are testing utilities, compelling them to embrace digitalization… with caution.

And it’s not just in the U.S.; energy markets around the world are changing. As power grids become smarter, electricity gets cleaner, and consumers have more choices; utilities are rethinking how they generate and sell electricity, how they can make their operations more intelligent and give customers more control while safeguarding reliability, affordability and safety.


State of the Power Sector: Trends and pain points

 Changing Fuel Mix

Power generation today is increasingly diverse and decentralized. The rise of cheaper renewable and distributed energy sources has led to a kind of fork in the road: How do traditional energy providers strike a balance between maintaining and repairing aging infrastructure and investing in the future? The trends towards grid parity and liberalization of the energy market are clear: 50 gigawatts of coal-fired generation capacity were retired between 2012 and 2017, and BMI expects the capacity of renewables (wind, solar, etc.) to double by 2026. Some analysts are even saying the cost of delivering power via grid could surpass that of consumers producing and storing their own energy as early as 2022.


The New Energy Customer

Becoming more responsive to customer demands (and more resilient in the face of extreme weather) requires more than just strengthening poles and wires; it means stemming the tide of outgoing knowledge and training the next generation of utility workers to do their jobs better, faster and safer. It means new services and charging models that give customers more control over their energy consumption and even manage the surplus energy generated by consumers-turned-prosumers. A digital grid powered by automation and data intelligence will help synchronize the new complex network of fuel and power providers to deliver increased flexibility, cleaner energy, faster service, and lower costs to consumers.


Making Sense of the Data

 The large amount and variety of data collected as the grid gets more connected – data from smart equipment, customers (mobile notifications and smart meter data), and even drones (visual GPS, infrared LiDar, etc.) – is a challenge in and of itself. Processed and analyzed correctly, this information could help power companies stay on top of outages and damaged assets, anticipate demand and repairs, optimize scheduling, and improve customer service. But to translate all this data into actionable insight, utilities must invest in advanced data analytics along with the tools to feed information to change agents “on the ground.”


A Dying Breed

With half of their workforce expected to retire over the next several years, it’s critical for power and utility companies to be agile and adapt. The industry, however, is dealing with both decades-old infrastructure unfamiliar to younger engineers and newer smart grid technology alien to veteran workers; not to mention low-tech work tools and inadequate training methods like paper and pencil, slide decks and videos.

In addition to capturing outgoing expertise, utility organizations need to make new employees highly proficient quickly. A Department of Energy survey last year found that there are two types of utility workers in short supply: Those with firsthand knowledge of legacy systems and those with the training or qualifications to move up and replace the former. And though 74% of employees are ready to learn new skills, the number of different devices and generations of technology in a typical substation today – many lacking maintenance and repair records or even user manuals – complicates training.


Applications of XR and Wearables in Utilities

If you’re wondering how utilities are going to maintain revenue as the demand for non-renewable electricity continues to decline; you’re not alone. In order to make necessary investments and keep rates competitive given all the new players, utilities have to look beyond power generation for opportunities to reduce costs and increase productivity. One option they’re exploring are new and continually improving wearable and immersive technologies, especially augmented reality. In fact, despite heavy regulations, energy and utilities are one of the top three verticals buying Augmented Reality glasses (ABI Research).


Efficiency & Productivity

A quick response time in a power outage depends on technicians being able to quickly and accurately assess the damage and expedite repairs; but what if field workers lack the knowledge or experience to do so? This scenario is becoming more common as experienced utility workers retire before transmitting their specialized knowledge to their replacements and as the required skills for the job change and diversify (along with fuel supplies). Smart glasses present a solution in the form of on-demand data, step-by-step instructions, and over-the-shoulder remote coaching. If AR overlays fail – information like asset type, operating stats, maintenance history, etc. overlaid on a piece of equipment – see-what-I-see assistance from an office-based, expert worker would speed the job along while leaving both hands free for actual repairs. This has the added benefit of easing the impact of changing workforce demographics and enabling utilities to do more with less, as one expert in an office can remotely mentor an entire team of younger technicians.

AI-based data solutions and even virtual reality models could help predict failures to distribution equipment and other power quality issues, and furthermore dispatch the closest technician to the job and automatically order replacement parts. And with new data sources, existing utility systems of information like asset management, distribution management and geographic information systems will improve, as will the AR overlays and virtual SMEs guiding workers in the field. All of the above speeds up power restoration, improves customer service, and reduces operating and maintenance costs.


Safety

With employees spread out at multiple field locations, keeping the utility workforce safe is a challenge. Usually, engineers’ status and location are known only if they check in regularly. But body-worn wearables equipped with sensors that monitor location and risk status to workers, including hazards in their environment and key biometrics, allow real-time incident reporting and safety warnings. Real-life examples include smart badges that detect when the wearer has fallen from a pylon, smart clothing that can monitor heart rate and heat stress while climbing a transmission pole, and smart wristbands with built-in voltage detection.


Training

Smart glasses both stream and record, meaning institutional knowledge can be reserved in the form of first-person training videos recorded by seasoned workers wearing smart glasses. Additionally, remote guidance “sessions” can be recorded, serving in the moment to help younger workers on the job and later as training material to look back at. The same can be used to design VR or MR training simulations for incoming employees, as we now have the studies to back up the effectiveness of immersive experiences over traditional learning methods.

By wearing an AR display, utility workers in any job can have immediate access to the resources and real-time intelligence they need right in their field of view. This error-proofs the work of newer employees while simultaneously training them on the job. Moreover, the flexibility afforded by XR in training will be absolutely critical as the skills and knowledge required of the next-generation utility workforce change in sync with power generation itself.


With tremendous industry-wide support, especially from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the power sector is taking a long-term yet effective approach to not only piloting the latest in immersive wearable tech but also producing the studies – hard data – to ultimately facilitate industry-wide adoption. See my next post for use cases!

 

The Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit (EWTS) is an annual conference dedicated to the use of wearable technology for business and industrial applications. As the leading event for enterprise wearables, EWTS is where enterprises go to innovate with the latest in wearable tech, including heads-up displays, AR/VR/MR, body- and wrist-worn devices, and even exoskeletons. The 5th annual EWTS will be held October 9-11, 2018 at The Fairmont in Austin, TX. For more details, please visit the conference website.


Augmented World Expo (AWE), the world’s #1 AR+VR conference and expo, comes to Munich, Germany on October 18-19, 2018. CXOs, designers, developers, futurists, analysts, investors and top press will gather at the MOC Exhibition Center to learn, inspire, partner and experience first-hand the most exciting industry of our times. Tickets now available at www.aweeu.com.

Exoskeletons Get Real: The Ultimate Wearable Technology?

Exoskeletons are nothing new and far from science fiction; in fact, researchers began developing exoskeletons for military use as early as the 1960s. For the last decade, engineers have been exploring exoskeletons designed to augment human strength and other abilities for military, medical and industrial purposes. Over time, these devices have become less clunky and expensive (from over $100k to under $10k in many cases) as well as more specialized and powerful.

Arguably, exoskeletons, not AR/VR, are the current star of enterprise wearables. Today, real companies with the funds to do so are transforming workers’ productivity and safety by introducing even just a few exoskeletons on the job site or factory floor. Ford recently made the largest order of industrial exoskeletons to date, with ABI Research expecting the market to rise from 67.29 million to $1.76 billion by 2028—exoskeletons have arrived.


Exoskeletons find their sweet spot

Combining the power of robots with the intelligence and adaptability of humans sounds great, but the execution – designing machines that conform to how we’re shaped and the way we move – is challenging. How do you make a machine both lightweight and flexible, adaptable to a wide variety of body shapes and sizes? Nevertheless, there are now tool-holding (partial) exoskeletons, exoskeletons for back support and sitting comfortably in mid-air, and even full-body, sci-fi-looking powered exosuits.

No post about exoskeletons can fail to mention this major driver for the advancement of the technology: Workplace injuries. Exoskeleton development has evolved from military and medical applications to industry, where wearable robotics are finding their sweet spot. Legacy industries like manufacturing that are changing due to automation but still rely heavily on human input; industries like construction and shipbuilding in which productivity hasn’t risen in decades; and industries where awkward positions, repetitive motion, and overexertion are common and employers shell out billions on workers’ compensation are particularly ripe for exoskeleton technology.

Assembling, building, moving… the heavy-duty operations of industry in which workers are required to wield heavy power tools, perform overhead tasks, stand for long periods of time, etc. breed accidents, injuries and long-term musculoskeletal stress. The U.S. alone spends $21 billion on workplace injuries, the price tag of healthcare treatment and lost worker productivity. When you consider that a single rotator cuff surgery can take out a worker for up to seven months and cost employers up to $56,000, wearable robot suits don’t seem so crazy. And major industrial players and startups alike recognize the growing opportunity:


 The market

Where once there were a handful of companies working on industrial exoskeletons, the exoskeleton market today has become quite crowded. Here are some of the companies developing and selling partial or full-body, powered or unpowered exoskeletons:

Tool-holding

Lockheed Martin

The large defense firm has long been interested in human augmentation, mainly in the military arena. In 2014, Lockheed introduced its first industrial exoskeleton product FORTIS (currently $24,750). FORTIS, a passive (unpowered), lightweight exoskeleton that transfers loads from a standing or kneeling position to the ground, makes heavy tools like a giant power drill feel weightless to the operator. Lockheed also sells the FORTIS Tool Arm ($7,149), which reduces muscle fatigue to allow the use of heavy hand tools for long shifts.

Bioservo

Bioservo’s first commercial product, the SEM Glove contained sensors that detected the wearer’s actions and activated motorized support when needed to grasp objects. Based on the company’s patented SEM (Soft Extra Muscle) technology, Ironhand ($9,250) is Bioservo’s newest product and a successor to the SEM Glove. It supports grip-intensive tasks while collecting data to categorize risky use cases and can be worn under a normal working glove. Bioservo bills Ironhand as “the world’s first soft robotic muscle strengthening system.” The company has signed contracts with General Motors, Airbus, NASA, and others.


Support 

noonee

With the Chairless Chair ($4,360) by noonee, employees can create a comfortable, more productive workspace at any time. The lower-body exoskeleton is designed to prevent back pain for workers who spend a large part of the day standing by essentially allowing the wearer to lock in and sit in mid-air while doing her work. The Chairless Chair debuted on several manufacturing lines and is now in use globally by over 100 companies. 

Laevo 

The Laevo (approx. $2,000) is a passive back-support exoskeleton for workers who have to frequently bend forward and lift objects. It works by transferring force from the upper body through the straps and to the thighs, thereby reducing pressure on the user’s spine and back by up to 40%. Laevo describes wearing its exoskeleton as “just like” putting on “a coat”—it adapts to your posture so the wearer has a lot of freedom of movement.

StrongArm Technologies

StrongArm’s FLx ErgoSkeleton ($298) is a data-driven upper-body exoskeleton with sensors that monitor posture and movement, providing feedback to ensure the wearer conforms to OSHA safe lifting guidelines. The solution promotes good posture and safe lifting by encouraging the user to bend at the knees and pivot instead of twist. The V-22 ErgoSkeleton ($629) adds cords to the FLx model; these loop over the shoulders and attach to a worker’s hands to restrict arm movements in such a way as to automate proper lifting. The passive exoskeleton shifts weight from the weak areas of the body to the user’s legs and core.

SuitX

SuitX has three models of industrial exoskeletons – backX ($4,000), legX ($6,000) and shoulderX ($4,000) – individual modules that when worn together form the full-body MAX exoskeleton. With backX to help with lifting heavy loads, legX to support crouching for extended periods of time, and shoulder to alleviate overhead work; the full MAX system allows wearers to perform lower back-, leg- and shoulder-intensive tasks with less risk of injury.


Full-body

Sarcos Robotics (Raytheon)

Not yet commercially available, Guardian XO is a robust, powered exosuit that’s said to enable the wearer to lift up to 200 pounds without exertion or strain. The XO features “scaled dexterous end effectors” and force feedback, allowing highly precise tasks with heavy tools or components. Sarcos says the Guardian XO and Guardian XO Max are “coming soon,” and the company recently secured its second development contract with the U.S. Air Force. Sarcos has also formed X-TAG, an industry-focused Exoskeleton Technical Advisory Group, along with executives from Bechtel, BMW, and more.

Comau

MATE (Muscular Aiding Tech Exoskeleton) by Comau is a spring-based exoskeleton designed to ease the shoulder muscles and provide lightweight yet effective postural support during manual and repetitive tasks. Designed in partnership with ÖSSUR and IUVO, a spin-off of The BioRobotics Institute, along with input from factory workers; MATE will be available in December 2018.


New entrants

LG

Household name LG is about to unveil the CLOi SuitBot, which looks like a pair of robotic pants and supports mobility by enhancing the power of the user’s legs. The exoskeleton can work alongside LG’s other service robots as part of a more advanced smart workforce scheme, and it uses AI to learn and evolve over time by analyzing biometric and environmental data. LG hasn’t revealed a price.

Ottobock 

Ottobock is a German artificial limb manufacturer whose close competitor Össur helped Comau design MATE. Paexo is Ottobock’s new project, an upper-body exoskeleton that relieves the strain of repetitive overhead assembly work. Paexo has been tested on 30 Volkswagen plant workers and the automaker is considering using Paexo in series production.


The future of manual labor begins now: Use cases

Betting on the promise of wearable robotics to increase productivity and reduce injuries; a number of construction, manufacturing and logistics companies have begun testing and even deploying exoskeletons. Here are some of the more recent use cases:

Lowe’s

Lowe’s employees can spend up to 90% of their day lifting and moving bags of cement, buckets of paint, etc. So, last spring the home improvement retailer teamed up with Virginia Tech to develop a lift-assist exosuit that would make the workday easier. The result: A kind of harness-meets-backpack with carbon-fiber rods running down the back and thighs. The rods flex and straighten when the user bends or stands, absorbing energy that’s then delivered to the worker when needed. During a 3-month pilot, test subjects wore enjoyment-sensing headsets in addition to providing verbal feedback about the exosuits.

The promised benefits are myriad for Lowe’s: Improved customer service (store staff can fetch items for customers), reduced costs (fewer injuries, reduced insurance premiums), and even better recruitment.

Ford 

In 2017, four employees at a Ford plant in Missouri tried out the EksoVest by Ekso Bionics, an unpowered, adjustable exoskeleton vest that can help workers do things like install carbon cans on cars suspended above them at a rate of 70 cars/hour. The United Automobile Workers Union actually paid for the trial to see if exoskeletons could really reduce common injuries among autoworkers.

Ford has been interested in wearable robotics since 2011, particularly for preventing shoulder injuries, which take the longest to recover from. The ROI is there: If one $5,000 EksoVest lasts three years, the cost comes out to 12 cents/hour/employee. That’s around the same price as a pair of disposable gloves and far less than the cost of even just one shoulder injury.

Just last month following 16 months of testing, Ford went into deployment mode, ordering 75 EksoVests for employees all over the world. This is the largest order of industrial exoskeletons ever placed and the first step in Ford’s plans to launch exoskeletons in factories worldwide.  

The EksoVest provides up to 15 pounds of lift assistance and support (per arm) during the overhead tasks Ford assembly line workers perform millions of times a year. Additionally, Ford is testing a motion-tracking bodysuit and camera solution at one of its plants in Spain, with the goal of making data-driven modifications to workstations and vehicle production processes that reduce physical stress.

Boeing

For as long as Ford, Boeing has been experimenting with exoskeletons to address the problems automation can’t solve. Wiring a Boeing 777, for instance, a task so complex only a highly skilled human can perform it, is a perfect opportunity for an exoskeleton. What attracts Boeing to exoskeletons are not only rising insurance premiums but also the possibility of improving the lives of its technicians who train for years to do their jobs and whose absence or retirement would be a hit to the aerospace giant’s productivity.

Though still in the experimental phase, Boeing has been running pilots to match the right exoskeleton to the right type of work and studying years of safety data to see where injuries are most likely to occur. Boeing mechanics in South Carolina have actually gone through training on the EksoVest, as Boeing hopes to roll out the tech to more workers in 2019. Apparently, Boeing employees love the exoskeletons.


Challenges still ahead

For every new type of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) there is process of adoption, and it’s no different with exoskeletons. The wearable robotics space is evolving fast; prices will continue to fall and the exoskeletons themselves will become lighter and more powerful over the next three to five years, but it takes a lot of testing! A good sign is the interest of the ATSM International, a body that sets manufacturing standards and has created a special committee of 90 organizations focused on exoskeletons and exosuits. Just as walking in areas of a job site without the proper PPE is forbidden, one day workers on construction sites and in warehouses and manufacturing plants will be forbidden to operate tools without the appropriate exoskeleton.

 

The Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit (EWTS) is an annual conference dedicated to the use of wearable technology for business and industrial applications. As the leading event for enterprise wearables, EWTS is where enterprises go to innovate with the latest in wearable tech, including heads-up displays, AR/VR/MR, body- and wrist-worn devices, and even exoskeletons. The 5th annual EWTS will be held October 9-11, 2018 at The Fairmont in Austin, TX. For more details, please visit the conference website.


Augmented World Expo (AWE), the world’s #1 AR+VR conference and expo, comes to Munich, Germany on October 18-19, 2018. CXOs, designers, developers, futurists, analysts, investors and top press will gather at the MOC Exhibition Center to learn, inspire, partner and experience first-hand the most exciting industry of our times. Tickets now available at www.aweeu.com.

 

Image source: Digital Trends