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.

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

EHS 2.0 with Digital Advancement: How General Electric is Digitizing Safety

Improving worker safety is a mission that never seems to end. Hazards in the workplace are always evolving, as are the gear, tools and methods developed to mitigate risks. Our understanding of safety in the workplace is also evolving: For instance, though it’s hard to quantify, we know that safety has a great impact on productivity. Nevertheless, according to Nationwide, 51% of businesses don’t have an Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) specialist on staff while 38% don’t offer any formal safety training.

Though wearable technologies, including body-worn sensors, heads-up displays and robotic suits, are being touted as promising safety solutions for industrial workers; it was only two years ago that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the highest number of work-related deaths in nearly a decade. The rise of fatal injuries on the job, however, does not mean that wearables aren’t ready for primetime or that companies aren’t using them. It means organizations are not yet leveraging these technologies to their full capacity as part of a larger, connected and proactive system for safety in the workplace.

There are, in fact, effective wearable safety devices today. According to Sam Murley, EHS Digital Acceleration Leader at GE, General Electric is exploring and deploying them in nearly 40 pilot and deployment programs around the globe: “These are things that can save lives today, the same way insulated gloves and hard hats do…These technologies don’t live in labs; they’re ready to go. The obstacles lie in communicating the value when in place and identifying new stakeholders to help drive broader adoption.” Plenty of GE-league companies are, at the very least, piloting wearable solutions—enough so that for the first time the EWTS 2018 program will devote an entire afternoon track to safety and training case studies. The devices range from simple sensor-embedded bracelets to VR headsets and partial exoskeletons, and cases are springing up across all sectors: In addition to Sam, speakers from retail giant Walmart and multinational brewing company Molson Coors will share first-hand experiences of using wearables to increase safety in their organizations.

A number of factors could explain why wearable safety tech isn’t exactly making waves in enterprise: Lack of awareness (a lot of the focus is around AR/VR), the challenges of choosing the right use case and gaining internal support and funding, the complexity of Big Data (translating raw wearable data into actionable safety insights), and even generational differences (Millennial business owners are leading the adoption of connected technologies for safety). While there is a lot of buzz around augmented and virtual reality devices for heads-up information, training and remote support (all of which influence the user’s safety); wearables that track employees’ physical condition and blend into their work attire are less glamorous and less obvious when it comes to showing ROI. Take something like location tracking: A simple GPS-tracking band coupled with geofencing could help keep employees out of known hazard zones, but how do you quantify that in terms of cost savings? More exciting tech like exoskeletons poses the same challenge: If you have 10 less injuries than last year after giving exoskeletons to a group of welders, what is the ROI?

When asked to give advice to EHS managers just beginning to look at emerging technologies, Sam Murley said “Know what problems you’re trying to solve and leverage what has been done in the past.” Taking that advice, here are a few recent initiatives at GE that provide not only example use cases but also best practices and a look into the future of wearable and other emerging technologies in EHS: In the very near future…we’ll completely digitize the way risks are managed…Workers will have a digital toolkit of wearables at their disposal as required PPE [personal protective equipment] as well as optional tools they’ll use to augment some of their work. As long as it doesn’t over-innovate the user and has data value, EHS in organizations could potentially get to zero quo.” – Sam Murley, GE


Working with and wearing robots:

Robots are increasingly taking over dangerous and repetitive tasks in the workplace. At GE, the choice between deploying a companion robot with a human worker and augmenting the worker with an exoskeleton comes down to “how hazardous the task is and how long you need the human brain involved in the process.” In the case of the dangerous and dirty job of inspecting a dark chemical storage tank, GE has been testing a 4-foot-long, snake-like robot made by Sarcos Robotics. Equipped with magnetic tracks, ‘Guardian S’ can slither up and down the walls of the storage tank and across the debris- and grime-covered floor, using embedded sensors in its head and tail to perform the inspection and share information with workers outside the tank. There’s no need to stop the operation or have rescue services on standby.

If you’re wondering what happens to the workers relieved of this hazardous task by Guardian S; they become the operators and decision makers or are otherwise reassigned to less dangerous jobs. GE’s interest in robotics is not about replacing humans but rather augmenting them, allowing workers to complete tasks in hazardous, inaccessible, and unstable environments without putting themselves at risk. Not only does Guardian S keep human workers safe; it’s also better and faster at its job. The human-managed technology can even be customized with features like magnets, boom cameras, and ultrasonic thickness sensors to perform tasks in a variety of work environments, from power-generation facilities to oil sites and wind turbines.

Sarcos Robotics also makes a pair of track-mounted robotic arms to help users lift heavy objects and is working on a load-bearing exoskeleton to enhance human strength. GE is very interested in wearable robotics to improve and simplify EHS and increase productivity across its operations. Along with other big companies like Delta and BMW; GE has joined Sarcos’ new Exoskeleton Technical Advisory Group (X-TAG), created to advance exoskeletons in industry. The technology has enormous potential: Robotic suits will match human intelligence and improvisation with machine strength and precision. Workers’ physical performance and wellbeing will improve; less manpower will be required to do the same amount of work; and workers’ compensation, healthcare and downtime costs will decrease.


A proactive stance on safety with AI & wearables:

When asked what makes a killer application of new technology at GE, Sam Murley replied, “When you have edge-to-edge systems that can protect the worker directly and push data from the worker and environment back to a system to intervene…Those are killer platforms and there are a few out there that we’re using right now.” GE began piloting such a platform in 2016—specifically, two injury prevention systems by StrongArm Technologies that combine wearables, data analytics and machine learning (AI).

GE workers at several sites worldwide wore ErgoSkeletons (like a cross between a smart harness belt and a backpack) while lifting and carrying heavy loads, performing repetitive tasks, and during highly complex procedures. These passive exoskeletons work by redistributing weight from a central point of the user’s body across stronger areas of the body or by supporting arms and legs during overhead work, thereby preventing back, shoulder, arm, and leg injuries while increasing product quality. The exoskeletons can be worn with or without StrongArm’s FUSE ergonomic sensor which tracks the user’s ergonomic movement through their data analytics software and provides live coaching via haptics for safer posture and physical technique.

In addition to getting workers to perform better and use their full body (relieving strain on the arms and lower back), the solution generates real-time data that can give insights into EHS at GE. With AI, GE managers can isolate problematic ergonomic areas and make preventative changes to the work environment as well as figure out which workers need intervention and training.


According to IBM and Cisco, 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created every day, and most of it is never captured, analyzed or used. Wearable technology can provide gigs and gigs of safety-related data but if that data lives in a vacuum, it’s wasted: “I think the most successful technology gives you immediate feedback while measuring some activity in the human body or environment and tying it back into a decision-making platform.” – Sam Murley, GE   

GE is taking a well-rounded digital approach to EHS, using wearable and other emerging technologies to digitize safety. Beyond robotic enhancements and ergonomic sensors; heads-up displays, VR headsets, lone worker management devices, hazard-sensing bands, and even drones are presenting EHS pros with new ways to protect and empower workers, make training more effective, reduce injury and costs, and enable data-driven decision making on both a micro and macro level.

*For more expert insight on how GE is finding solutions, setting up pilots and working through deployment issues, read our full interview with EHS Digital Acceleration Leader and EWTS 2018 presenter Sam Murley here.

 

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 9-10, 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. Apply to exhibit, submit a talk and buy Super Early Bird tickets now at www.aweeu.com.

 

*Image source: Sarcos Robotics

Where are the simple but effective wearables?

Remote collaboration via smart glasses, Virtual Reality training, design visualization with HoloLens…These are incredible applications of wearable technologies in enterprise today. While a VR headset is definitely more exciting than a connected wristband, an unassuming wrist-worn device equipped with the right sensors could have tremendous value in the workplace. But where are such simple wearables?

No stranger to employee backlash, Amazon is currently taking heat for a pair of patents awarded to the company. The patents – for wristbands that use ultrasonic pulses and haptic feedback to track and guide a worker’s hands in relation to inventory bins in a warehouse – have raised concerns over employee privacy and workplace surveillance. This is not surprising to anyone who follows the enterprise wearable tech space—privacy has been one of the major challenges holding back widespread adoption of wearables in the workplace. Nevertheless, enterprises are managing to work around the issue today by being transparent, allowing opt-in, and taking the security of workers’ personal data seriously.

To those criticizing the employee-tracking wearables as invasive, Amazon insists the technology would be used to track inventory and not individuals. But can you really track one and not the other using a wearable? Yes, the devices would help workers by freeing up their hands and making them more accurate, but they would also provide insights on personal performance as a byproduct. We know that when it comes to smartphone apps, consumers are willing to give up some measure of privacy for discounts and other benefits. The same holds in the workplace—if workers see the benefit, they’re more likely to support adoption.

Should Amazon one day employ the devices described in the patents, employees’ wearable data could be viewed anonymously—a solution some companies have explored in order to collect workforce productivity and efficiency information without invading privacy or sparking fear among workers of the wearable data being used to penalize them. Of course, this requires a degree of trust between employer and employees (which might be difficult for Amazon given the company’s history of strained relations with its workers.)

What I take away from the Amazon story is the concept of simple but effective wearables. Monocular (Assisted Reality) smart glasses are proving effective in many real-life use cases and could be viewed as relatively simple compared to AR/VR headsets, but I’m talking even simpler and more invisible. Simple smart bands, not fitness trackers but rather inconspicuous wristbands that pack a big punch (advanced sensors) and deliver significant results. These kinds of wearables – no-frills devices without screens or buttons or any method of user interaction at all – seem to be missing from the market today.

The simple but effective category of enterprise wearables includes bracelets, patches, and possibly items of ordinary clothing equipped with sensors and haptic technology and aimed at very specific outcomes for improving workers’ lives on the job. Imagine a customizable or modular smart band: You decide what needs to be tracked to achieve your objective – maybe it’s the missing human piece in a greater IoT scheme – and the appropriate sensors are embedded in the device.

There are use cases of enterprises using a variety of minimalistic wearables, mostly the products of smaller companies and startups, to target risk factors for employees in the workplace. In those cases, some biometric (ex. fatigue, body temp) or chemical in the work environment was measured via wearable. Sometimes the same wearable beeped, lit up or vibrated to warn the wearer when a threshold was crossed.

You don’t need a fancy wearable to track employees’ health on the job, just a form factor that can house the right sensor(s.) A simple body-worn device could track a worker’s location in real time or measure the user’s form and movement while performing a task. The objective might be to ensure employees stay confined to safe zones or have clearance to be in a certain area, to optimize the flow of workers throughout a job site or busy airport, to decrease repetitive motion injuries, or to locate workers in case of an emergency.

What about a smart band that acts as a key in lieu of card access to a secure area, or that turns on a piece of equipment? Similar applications are popping up in the travel and hospitality sector, and might provide a layer of security, safety and convenience in a wide range of industries. Which tasks – like clocking in and out of a shift – could be taken out of workers’ hands and made mindless with a basic wearable? And why are there few well-known wearables of this type on the market today? Perhaps we’re not yet ready for implantable chips capable of the same, but Amazon’s employee-tracking wristband is not an ominous sign for the future of work; rather, it is a model more wearable companies should be pursuing.

 

The 5th Annual Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit 2018, the leading event for enterprise wearables, will take place October 9-10, 2018 at The Fairmont in Austin, TX. 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. For details, early confirmed speakers and preliminary agenda, please stay tuned to the conference website.


Augmented World Expo (AWE,) the world’s largest conference and expo dedicated to Augmented and Virtual Reality, is taking place May 30-June 1, 2018 in Santa Clara, CA. Now in its 9th year, AWE USA is the destination for CXOs, designers, developers, creative agencies, futurists, analysts, investors and top press to learn, inspire, partner and experience first-hand the most exciting industry of our times.

 

Image Credit: Amazon/USPTO

Below the Neck: Body- and Wrist-Worn Wearables in the Workplace

Watch this panel of thought leaders and practitioners from different enterprises share use cases of body- and wrist-worn wearables they’ve deployed in their organizations. You’ll see that below-the-neck wearable devices are being applied to both collect data from and push immediate feedback to workers:

 

 

Applications and Lessons:

In healthcare, wearable data is used to learn more about patients and improve care. With new possibilities of collecting data on human behavior, chronic conditions, etc. come new, never-before-seen challenges for those in medicine. How can wearable data be used – and more significantly, how should it be used – to change patient care, make better care decisions, coordinate care more effectively, and empower patients to care for themselves?

In other workplaces, wearable data helps identify hazards and keep employees safe. A small wearable radiation detector can ensure that astronauts stay below established exposure safety levels on space missions. Leidos is developing such a device for NASA, taking a commercial, off-the-shelf device and extending its capabilities to fit the user’s needs and limitations in space.

The EHS team at General Electric is focusing on highly hazardous processes across the company’s portfolio, exploring wearables from two angles: Body-worn wearables that can make hidden hazards more visible (ex. voltage or ergonomic sensors;) and those that can augment employees to do their jobs with less risk of injury, i.e. wearable robotics. After all, safer workers certainly get more work done, which goes to show that information-displaying smart glasses aren’t the only wearable technology that can aid productivity.

Exoskeletons that assist with strenuous tasks can reduce injuries on the job, but so, too, can ergonomic data from much smaller wearable devices. Caterpillar is using wearable data to find hot spots where poor ergonomics are hurting workers. An important lesson: You can anonymize the data and still improve safety–the data is more important for identifying those hot spots. The technology can provide immediate haptic feedback to condition users (without naming them;) or the information can be shared with users later on, letting them take ownership of the data and self-manage.

In addition to wearable sensors and exoskeletons, body-worn cameras, which can be used to record work progress, also fall into the “below the neck” category. This is very useful on a construction work site, an environment that’s rather volatile and constantly changing.

You cannot discuss the use of body- and wrist-worn wearables without addressing employee privacy, employee buy-in, IT and legal concerns. “Good will” – the intent to improve safety or make workers’ jobs easier – is not enough, which is why the EHS team at GE works very closely with data privacy and labor relations teams to really think through each use case. How do you get “boots on the ground” to wear the devices? By starting small even though the technology has the ability to do more, showing how employees personally benefit, and letting them see the information (transparency) and employ it themselves.

 

 

 

 

Consumer Wearables That Could Work For Your Business

For this article, I went shopping—online, that is. I’m an enterprise wearables expert, and I must admit I don’t know much about consumer wearables. I work out regularly but don’t own a fitness tracker, and haven’t worn my Apple Watch in months. But I suspect there is enterprise potential in many of the wearable devices available to consumers today, so I did some web browsing.

Consumer wearables fall into several categories, including brain-sensing headbands and smart jewelry. I searched for devices in each category that might be useful in enterprise settings. Keep in mind that I have not tried many of these wearables myself but assuming they deliver on what they’re advertised to do, here’s what I found:

 

Arm/Wristbands

Myo by Thalmic Labs

Myo is an armband that lets the wearer control other connected devices using gesture and motion. With SDKs available for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android, developers have a lot of freedom to build applications for Myo, beyond just controlling a smartphone or delivering a presentation. For instance, surgeons in Spain are using the device to navigate medical records while in the O.R. Think of it as a touch-free mouse for your technology.

RE-vibe by FokusLabs

RE-vibe is an anti-distraction wristband that uses gentle vibrations at strategic intervals to keep the wearer attentive and on-task. The technology “encourages mindfulness while studying or at work.” I can only picture RE-vibe entering the workplace as a personal device, not as an employer-provided wearable. Those of us sitting at a desk right now have certainly struggled to focus after a restless night (and with all the political news taking over our Twitter feeds.)

Steer by Creative Mode

Like the SmartCap, this wrist wearable is designed to prevent drivers from falling asleep at the wheel. Steer detects changes in heart rate and skin conductance, establishing a baseline when the user first puts on the device and giving a warning – first a slight vibration, then a gentle shock – when those metrics fall to a certain degree below that line. The shock increases serotonin, cortisol and other hormones to keep the driver awake. Steer could be used as an alternative to SmartCap by companies interested in avoiding fatigue-related accidents on the job.

TouchPoints

Myo offers control, RE-vibe helps you focus, and Steer keeps you awake and alert—all potentially useful at work. TouchPoints offer stress relief in as little as 30 seconds, which would undoubtedly appeal to many workers. These stress-relieving, wrist-worn “neuroscientific wearables” work by reducing physical sensations and shifting “fight or flight” to alter the body’s stress mechanism. Work is often stressful—you might take a break or practice meditation, or you could use TouchPoints for fast relief right on your wrist.

*

Patches and Clip-ons

Wearsafe by Wearsafe Labs

Wearsafe is “a modern-day, mobile panic button” that can be clipped onto any piece of clothing. By pressing it, Wearsafe uses the wearer’s smartphone to instantly send an alert to friends and family. Wearsafe Labs’ website has an enterprise section, because “safe employees are productive employees.” In its pitch to employers, the company describes Wearsafe as a “safety service designed to connect and protect your staff” in case of an accident, incident or crisis. The dashboard Wearsafe.help combines alert management, dispatch aid and incident reporting.

Lumo Lift by Lumo BodyTech

Lumo Lift is a “posture coach and activity tracker.” Once you connect the device to the Lumo Lift app on your phone, you attach it to your shirt and set a target posture; every time you slouch thereafter, Lumo Lift vibrates to tell you to sit straighter. Lumo does market its product as a tool for corporate wellness programs, noting that back pain is a top reason for missed workdays and doctor visits as well as a leading cause of disability claims. The company already counts Facebook, ExxonMobil and Nestle among its customers.

Upright GO and Upright PRO by Upright Technologies

This wearable posture trainer also vibrates to correct the user’s posture, but it’s only meant to be worn (attached to the back with an adhesive) for short “training sessions” of up to 60 minutes a day. Users can review their progress on the connected app, and hopefully improve their posture over time. As stated on Upright’s website, 86% of U.S. workers sit for the entire workday, increasing their risk of obesity, musculoskeletal problems, and diabetes. Employers might consider investing in the Upright PRO or the newer Upright GO (simpler, single-sensor device) to help employees reduce back pain.

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Smart/Connected Clothing

There are many smart clothing products out there including socks and high-fashion pieces, but sensor-equipped exercise clothes clearly dominate. These garments track motion, heart rate, body temp and location; monitor air quality and UV exposure; and even pay for things. I don’t see why similar technology could not be incorporated into standard work uniforms. There are smart construction vests and other PPE designed for industry, so why not smart nursing scrubs or maintenance uniforms?

AiQ Smart Clothing

This company makes a range of smart clothing items, including an electronic heating garment that keeps wearers warm (ThermoMan;) clothing that lights up to provide visibility in dark surroundings (NeonMan;) and anti-radiation textiles (ShieldMan.) There are certainly enterprise use cases for tracking or regulating workers’ body temperature and keeping them safe in dark or nighttime conditions.

Lumo Run by Lumo BodyTech

Lumo also makes a device that clips onto running shorts—not exactly smart clothing but what it does is monitor cadence, ground contact time, pelvic rotation and stride length. The accompanying Lumo Run app supports real-time coaching, sending feedback to the user’s headphones. A similar feature in enterprise might give a worker advice for moving with “good ergonomics” in real time, right in her ear.  

Samsung NFC suit

According to Wareable, you can purchase this smart suit in Korea under Samsung’s wearable brand The Human Fit. The connected business suit allows the wearer to do things like unlock his phone and digitally swap business cards. I don’t see this idea catching on in America but wearable-enabled networking (perhaps activated by a handshake) is something I can get behind.

There have been efforts to monitor workers’ movement on the job, from their posture (see above) to how they lift heavy items. There are many form factors for gathering biometrics; and though it may be more accurate to take some measurements from one part of the body over another, work clothes and uniforms are prime, underdeveloped real estate for wearable sensors.

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Hearables/Wireless Earbuds

The ear has become another popular body part for fitness tracking, as well as for controlling smartphone features, noise cancelling/augmenting, and real-time translation. Those last two applications have real enterprise potential, in noisy workplaces and multilingual work scenarios.

Here One by Doppler Labs

These wireless Here Buds combine “premium audio” for music and calls, noise cancellation, speech enhancement, and Siri/Google Now controls. The user can control how he or she hears the world via the connected app—with layered listening, manipulation of real-world volume and sound, and smart noise filters. Here One is pricey and likely to remain in the realm of personal wearables (there are cheaper noise-cancelling devices out there;) yet if the noise altering features are as sophisticated as claimed, these earbuds could be ideal for blocking unwanted, distracting or distressing sounds at work while “keeping” the noise essential to one’s task.

Did you know that high-level noise, like that from factory equipment or heavy machinery on a job site, can actually damage your hearing? Tens of millions of Americans are occupationally exposed to harmful noise, which not only puts them at risk of hearing loss but also heart disease.

Pilot by Waverly Labs

This “real-time translation hearable” consists of earbuds that translate between two users speaking different languages. In the first earpiece, noise-cancelling microphones filter out ambient noise from the wearer who is talking, while the second earpiece returns the translation to the other person in real time. Speech recognition, machine learning and speech synthesis technologies do the actual translating through the Pilot app. Pilot pre-orders come with free access to Romance languages.

Translate One2One by Lingmo

This AI-powered earpiece claims to translate spoken conversation and written text within 3-5 seconds without relying on Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connectivity. The solution uses IBM Watson’s Natural Language technology to help perform the translation, and currently supports English, Japanese, French, Italian, Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese, German and Chinese. Both the speaker and listener must be wearing an earpiece.

Clik by Mymanu

Marriott is reportedly interested in these wireless smart earphones to help staff at its hotels communicate with guests. Clik uses voice recognition technology to near instantly translate live conversation in 37 languages. On the companion smartphone app, users can download 9 language packs, which can be synced and stored on the buds. Like the previous product, Clik doesn’t require a data connection.

There are plenty of customer service and international business scenarios where in-ear translation could greatly improve communication, service and productivity. Hotel staff might better serve foreign-speaking guests, negotiations with foreign business partners might go more smoothly, and colleagues speaking different languages might be able to better collaborate on projects, etc.

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Smart Jewelry

Personal Safety Wearables

Many of the personal safety wearables are designed for and marketed to women and the elderly, but the ones that follow – like Wearsafe – could potentially be worn by lone (travelling) workers such as in-home caregivers and utilities workers.

Nimb Ring

This smart ring works as a panic button, tracking the wearer’s location and sending an emergency alert when pressed through the Nimb app to a pre-managed group of responders.

Apple Watch

With the watchOS 3 update, Apple has added an SOS mode to its smartwatch. By holding down the side button, Apple Watch will attempt to call local emergency services either via cellular (if your iPhone is nearby) or over Wi-Fi. A text message can also be sent to preset SOS contacts after the call ends.

RapidSOS

This emerging technology startup recently announced partnerships with several wearable tech companies allowing them to link their wearable products to RapidSOS’s advanced emergency platform.

Smart Rings

The finger is another spot for activity tracking, viewing smartphone notifications, and contactless payments.

OURA

According to OURA’s website, our fingers provide more accurate activity tracking than our wrists. This “sleep tracker and wellness ring ” senses arteries in the fingers to provide insight into how users’ lifestyle choices affect their sleep and performance. Employers should be concerned about how much sleep employees are getting, especially in jobs where fatigue might threaten worker safety or lead to costly errors. Should truck drivers, for instance, show up for work when they’re overtired? What about your heavy machinery operators or store employees who need to make a good impression on your customers? Lack of sleep negatively impacts one’s daily performance, slowing productivity and increasing the likelihood of having an on-the-job accident.

NFC Ring

This smart ring can be used to unlock your mobile devices or even your door (if you have an NFC-enabled door lock.) It can share and transfer information such as links, photos and contacts, control smartphone applications, and make payments. As mobile payments become more mainstream, I wonder what will become of our plastic credit cards. What if instead of a store credit card, a retailer offered a store smart ring or another wearable payment method just for use in its stores. Visa has been experimenting with creating different types of wearable payments, including a ring and a wearable sticker; and Tappy Technologies is a company that embeds payment functionality in watches and jewelry. Tappy has its own smart payment ring and also provides its technology to jewelry companies to develop their own products.

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Brain-Sensing Wearables

This category appears focused on improving mental well-being, sleep and even dreams; stimulating the mind during tasks; or helping with memory and performance—all of which have obvious implications for our work lives. Most of the devices use EEG technology and are not medically approved.    

Thync Relax Pro

Thync bills its product as “the first consumer health solution for lowering stress and anxiety.” This small triangular device worn at the back of the neck uses low-level electrical stimulation to activate nerves affecting the brain’s adrenaline system. The simulation patterns trigger natural mechanisms that relax the wearer, and improve mood and sleep.

Lowdown Focus by Smith Optics

These smart sunglasses use brain-sensing technology to help athletes and other active users perform well under pressure through “mental training sessions.” The technology measures brain activity and provides cues to the wearer for becoming more calm, relaxed and focused.

Brainstation by Neuroverse

Neuroverse has apparently been working on Brainstation, a small oval wearable that adheres to the forehead, for several years now. The device puts the wearer through a series of “brain training games” designed to promote neuroplasticity, or the forming of new connections in the brain. EEG sensors detect certain neural markers to monitor the games’ effects on the user’s reaction times, attention span, memory and decision making. Neuroverse also opened its API for Brainstation VR, a version of its solution that would enable mind control of objects and actions in Virtual Reality and that works with game engines like Unity.

 

Final verdict: While it’s certainly advantageous to be aware of what’s available on the consumer side – especially if you have a specific EHS or employee well-being concern in the workplace – consumer wearables seem to enter and disappear from the marketplace at a much higher rate than enterprise devices. There are many crowdfunding campaigns and nearly all of the devices have to be paired with a smartphone app. My sense is that the consumer wearable tech market is a bit fickle because it’s still trying to understand the end user. As an enterprise, I’d worry about investing in 500 devices that may not have an ecosystem to support them within a year. Looking at consumer wearables, however, is less about finding actual products to use in your organization today than getting a sense of what wearable technologies are capable of and how wearable companies are attempting to augment and empower human beings.  

 

About EWTS Fall 2017:

The Fall Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit 2017 taking place October 18-19, 2017 in Boston, MA is the leading event for wearable technology in enterprise. It is also the only true enterprise event in the wearables space, with the speakers and audience members hailing from top enterprise organizations across the industry spectrum. Consisting of real-world case studies, engaging workshops, and expert-led panel discussions on such topics as enterprise applications for Augmented and Virtual Reality, head-mounted displays, and body-worn devices, plus key challenges, best practices, and more; EWTS is the best opportunity for you to hear and learn from those organizations who have successfully utilized wearables in their operations. 

photo credit: oooOOC Ringly Launch Collection 01 – LR via photopin (license)

The Wearable Road Less Traveled: Not Your Average Enterprise Wearables

Smart glasses like the Vuzix M300 and the long-awaited Google Glass Enterprise Edition; AR/VR headsets like the HoloLens and Oculus Rift; smartwatches like the Samsung Gear S3—these wearables get a lot of coverage; but how many cases of enterprises using temperature-regulating wearables or custom smart bands do you know of? Read about companies exploring the wearable road less traveled:

Caterpillar

In Spring 2015 it was reported that Caterpillar planned to use dorsaVi’s medical-grade wearable sensor technology to monitor and evaluate the movement of its workers using heavy material handling equipment, with the goal of discovering best practices and improving safety.

The ViSafe solution features multiple (wearable) movement and muscle activity sensors that track how users move in their daily work lives—how their lower backs, shoulders, etc. move while performing tasks. The sensor data synced with video footage can be analyzed to pinpoint unsafe work practices like challenging postures and repetitive motions that would cause injury, and to reveal where modifications should be made in the workplace.

For Caterpillar, ViSafe analysts would help come up with a plan to optimize both the workplace and workforce to prevent injury, including training workers in safe manual handling and implementing potential interventions at work stations.

*Hear from Caterpillar’s Mark Melody and Barb Schwarzentraub this October at EWTS Fall 2017

Emerson Electric    

Heat is a silent killer in the Gulf region: In July 2016, temperatures regularly exceeded 104˚F, creating unbearable conditions for construction workers and other laborers. While the UAE has a mandatory summer break for outdoor workers between the hours of 12:30pm and 3:00pm, high temps are still a major cause of exhaustion and illness among the workforce.

To combat the heat, Emerson teamed up with Freezermate to develop a wearable solution in the form of a “neck cooler.” Emerson provided over 1,000 of its employees with freezer-pack devices worn around the neck, engineered to instantly reduce the wearer’s body temp as well as absorb neck sweat during the hottest hours of the work day. Each wearable could last around an hour or so under temperatures of up to 113˚F.

Emerson MEA worked with Majid Al Futtaim Properties on one pilot project and with World Security in Jebel Ali. The company also installed a solar-powered freezer on one of the sites to keep the wearables cold and in use. By enabling users to work safely for a greater part of the day, this kind of wearable technology could help UAE workers be more productive and reduce downtime.

Kenco Logistics

A leading manufacturer of coffee brewing systems partnered with Kenco to oversee its North American distribution after experiencing a 75% increase in daily order volume. With 15 full-time employees performing quality checks, the manufacturer had achieved 99.5% order accuracy, which Kenco sought to increase to over 99.8% through technological innovation.

Kenco modified its proprietary warehouse management system to allow pickers to use hands-free wearable scanning devices – specifically, Motorola WT4000 wrist-mounted terminals with ring scanners – on the pick line. (The WT4000 is no longer available. Zebra Technologies now offers the WT6000.)

As Kenco intended, picking efficiency and order accuracy went up. With the new system (Kenco’s own WMS modified for the small screen of a wearable) and new hands-free equipment, orders were completed in significantly reduced time and order accuracy exceeded 99.9%. Additional labor was not required to handle the increase in order volume; and in fact Kenco was able to reduce the QA staff from 15 to 3 full-time workers, saving $382,000 in labor costs.

Jaguar Land Rover 

The Jaguar Activity Key is an original smart wristband for Jaguar drivers. It is a car key, just in the form of a lightweight, robust and waterproof device worn like a bracelet. For active Jaguar owners, the wearable serves as a substitution for the conventional car key that one usually carries around. An RFID sensor in the band assumes control of the vehicle’s locking system, so when the driver wants to enjoy a hike or swim without needing to carry anything, he/she can wear the Activity Key.

The Jaguar Activity Key operates without a battery (doesn’t require charging,) and is suitable for all temperatures and weather conditions. In addition to this original wearable device, Jaguar has an Android Wear application for drivers to operate various car functions remotely using a personal smartwatch.

Skanska

In 2012, the global construction and development company adopted Reactec’s HAVMETER system to monitor Hand Arm Vibration (HAV,) a major source of injury for utilities and construction workers. (Keep in mind that this technology is now available in a wearable form factor: While the HAVMETER is a device about the size and shape of a pager, it isn’t worn on the body but rather attached to individual tools. HAVWEAR is a wrist-worn device. Both measure the worker’s exposure to vibration.)

Skanska’s employees operate vibrating tools to drill, excavate, resurface, etc. on a daily basis. Prior to HAVMETER, the company used a paper-based HAV monitoring system—workers were essentially self-monitoring their exposure, and were not always accurate in doing so. Reactec’s solution presented an automatic and more precise method of tracking and reporting operators’ exposure levels and tool usage. (The HAVWEAR is capable of informing the wearer of his or her exposure in real time.)

As there is no cure for HAVS (Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome,) prevention is key. Reactec’s HAV solutions enable companies to proactively manage and mitigate workers’ vibration damage and injury risk. With the accurate and timely insight afforded by HAVMETER, Skanska saw a significant increase in worker protection and productivity. Today, Reactec offers both HAVMETER and HAVWEAR.

*Albert Zulps from Skanska will be speaking at EWTS Fall ’17

PGT Trucking

Pennsylvania-based PGT Trucking abides by the motto “Safety is Everyone’s Job – All the Time.” A trucking company’s most valuable assets are its drivers, which is why PGT uses a smart Bluetooth headset by Maven Machines to keep employees safe.

To start, PGT gave the Maven Co-Pilot smart headset to five of its drivers. The hands-free technology is designed to detect if a truck driver is fatigued or distracted, capturing data in real time and alerting the user at the first signs of risk. Packed with sensors and connected to an app, the headset tracks the driver’s head position (head motion, mirror-checking, focus) and communicates with the GPS of his or her mobile phone to account for safety metrics like speed and harsh braking. Warnings and coaching are given via speech technology.

While a headset is not what you first imagine when hearing “wearable technology;” the Maven Co-Pilot is a device worn on the body, smart and connected, and operated hands-free.

From advanced body-worn sensors to a technological ice pack for your neck, it seems workers today can be outfitted with a piece of technology for every body part. These devices – a headset that can tell when you’re not paying attention to the road, wristbands that are also car keys and vibration detectors – may not be very futuristic or have glamorous functions. They don’t overlay information and diagrams on the real world, but they are wearables and they are effective.

 

About EWTS Fall 2017:

The Fall Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit 2017 taking place October 18-19, 2017 in Boston, MA is the leading event for wearable technology in enterprise. It is also the only true enterprise event in the wearables space, with the speakers and audience members hailing from top enterprise organizations across the industry spectrum. Consisting of real-world case studies, engaging workshops, and expert-led panel discussions on such topics as enterprise applications for Augmented and Virtual Reality, head-mounted displays, and body-worn devices, plus key challenges, best practices, and more; EWTS is the best opportunity for you to hear and learn from those organizations who have successfully utilized wearables in their operations. 

 

 

 

photo credit: TheBetterDay Lr-1000142 via photopin (license)

Practical Fantasy: Real Companies Exploring Exoskeletons

One cannot begin a blog post talking about workplace safety without sharing some statistics: According to OSHA, there are more than 4,500 worker fatalities in the U.S. each year, and nearly three million work-related injuries and illnesses. U.S. employers spend $95 billion annually on workers’ compensation insurance, and shell out over $20 billion in workers’ comp fees. It’s not just about the money—injuries and illnesses hurt productivity, with employees having to miss work, restrict their activities, or even transfer jobs.

Those three million workers aren’t necessarily doing anything wrong. The work performed on construction sites and in factories is physically demanding. Over time, manual labor takes a toll on the human body, no matter one’s form while doing a task. So, it’s understandable that enterprises would be willing to spend a lot of money to augment human abilities with wearable robotics.

Exoskeletons are mechanical frames worn on the body to alleviate individuals’ physical burdens and enhance their abilities. There are full-body suits as well as partial exoskeletons like bionic arms and motor-assisted gloves. Exoskeletons can be powered (motorized) or not, but the idea is to make it physically easier for workers to do their jobs. (Exoskeleton technology originated in the military defense sector and has proved useful for assisting the physically disabled, paralyzed, and elderly.)

Exoskeletons are an ideal solution for addressing repetitive stress and overexertion injuries, the most common and expensive types of workplace injuries stemming from doing the same motion repeatedly; or from pulling, lifting, pushing, holding or carrying with improper technique or great strain on the job. Exoskeleton technology can make these activities easier by taking pressure off workers’ muscles and nerves, and preventing them from compromising their form. With greater ease comes the ability to work faster and get more done, and of course less risk of injury.

While there are many prototypes and even working exoskeletons currently in production, only a small number of these superhuman suits have been deployed in real industrial work environments. Interest is growing, however, among major enterprises in a range of industries and verticals. The following companies are either developing or testing exoskeleton technology today:

Lowe’s

The home improvement retailer recently set up a 3-month trial in one of its Virginia stores, where four employees are wearing non-motorized exoskeletons to lift objects and stock shelves.

Lowe’s workers can spend up to 90% of their time moving and lifting heavy items like bags of cement and buckets of paint. Looking to make the workday easier for employees, Lowe’s partnered with an engineering professor at Virginia Tech to develop a simple exoskeleton. They came up with a harness-like device with carbon fiber rods that act as artificial tendons; bending with the user and storing energy as he goes to pick up an object, and releasing that energy back into the user’s back and legs when he stands up.

Lowe’s also had the employees involved in the trial wear a headset that senses brain activity, revealing whether the wearer enjoyed using the exoskeleton or not. Direct feedback from employees has been positive—workers find the tech to be helpful and comfortable enough to wear all day. Lowe’s also believes the technology could be a selling point in recruiting new employees.

Hyundai

The Korean automaker is building a line of robotic human exoskeletons to supplement or augment the abilities of manual laborers and help paraplegics walk again. One of the exoskeleton models, the Hyundai Universal Medical Assist or HUMA, is designed to aid every limb, supporting up to 88 pounds of a user’s weight. The suit can help fully mobile users lift heavier objects than normal and run at speeds up to 7.5 mph. Another suit, the H-Wex (Hyundai Waist Exoskeleton,) is more of a safety device, designed to reduce the toll of repetitive motions originating from the waist. By giving auto workers, for example, more lifting power or just helping them endure long periods on their feet, the H-Wex can prevent back injuries and fatigue.

Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering (DSME)

Exoskeletons can reduce the physical stress of everyday activities by diverting or absorbing the forces that normally affect the body, and they can also endow users with superhuman abilities like the strength to carry loads not normally manageable by a single human being. That is what attracted Daewoo to the technology several years ago: The Korean shipbuilder, maker of some of the world’s largest vessels, showcased its first prototype exoskeleton in 2013 and is now in the process of rolling out the devices for regular use in its shipyards.

Made of aluminum alloy, carbon and steel, DSME’s exoskeleton weighs about 60 pounds but is entirely self-supporting, enabling users to lift heavy metal objects up to 66 pounds and still walk at a regular pace. The device is powered, with a three-hour battery life, and supports accessories for specific tasks (like a small attachable crane.) In testing, shipyard workers have generally approved of the technology, which is continually being improved in an effort to achieve a target lifting capacity of 220 pounds.

Airbus

From full-on robosuits to robotic limbs: Last spring, Airbus revealed a strap-on mechanical arm intended to help assembly line workers execute heavy lifting with ease, even perform superhuman feats like machining parts of a jet hundreds of times a shift.

Airbus’ “third arm” exoskeleton assists workers in its Hamburg plant in using heavy drilling devices—they’re able to drill the 600 holes needed for each wing of an aircraft faster and be more comfortable. The technology cuts down on the costs of building airliners and keeps older workers in employment by increasing their strength.

The multinational corporation believes technologies like exoskeletons, smart glasses and 3D printing will be key in the production of Airbus aircrafts going forward and to achieving the goal of doubling the current output of its A320 aircraft.

Audi

The exoskeleton devices mentioned thus far have been prototypes developed in-house, in use by those organizations or not yet for sale. But there are companies that design and sell exoskeletons for industrial use. Ekso Bionics, for instance, has a few enterprise products: The EksoZeroG, a bionic arm that has appeared on construction sites, and the EksoVest, an upper body device for tasks above chest height.

Swiss firm Noonee’s Chairless Chair is popular among automotive companies, including BMW and Audi. In automotive assembly, workers often have to work in unnatural positions (ex. overhead or under a vehicle,) which can lead to serious health issues, as can spending much of the day alternately standing and bending. Noonee’s wearable ergonomic chair allows the wearer to essentially sit in midair and still walk around freely. The device supports Audi factory workers when they bend or lift, helping their body posture, preventing strain and eliminating the fatigue of standing.

As in the aerospace industry, exoskeleton technology can provide better working conditions for an aging automotive workforce.

*Hear Marcus Kuehne of Audi and May Russell of Ford speak at EWTS Fall 2017

*See Wearable Tech in the Automotive Industry and Top 3 Applications for Wearable Technology and Augmented Reality in the Automotive Industry

Lockheed Martin

As told by Keith Maxwell at the Spring 2017 EWTS, Lockheed Martin is serious about human augmentation. Keith is the Senior Product Manager of Exoskeleton Technologies at Lockheed, where he works on commercial industrial exoskeletons, as well as systems for soldiers and first responders. Though the technology is still in the early adopter phase, Lockheed has an industrial production line: The Fortis exoskeleton is an unpowered, lightweight suit developed for environments like shipyards and heavy construction sites.

The Fortis Tool Arm is available as a separate product, a partial exoskeleton that transfers the weight, vibration and torque of holding industrial power tools from the operator’s body to the ground, making the tools feel weightless. Users, who commonly work overhead or on vertical surfaces, can produce higher quality work with less risk of muscle fatigue and musculoskeletal injury.

There is also the computer-controlled Fortis Knee Stress Release Device (K-SRD,) which reduces the energy soldiers need to cross terrain, kneel for long periods of time, and climb with heavy loads.

*Lockheed Martin’s Richard Rabbitz will speak at EWTS Fall ’17

 

With exoskeletons, you get the best of both worlds: The superior strength of a robot combined with a human’s ability to reason, adapt, innovate and improvise. Human workers are not in competition with automation and robotics. The best enterprise IoT ecosystems don’t pit the two against one another but rather use emerging technologies like robotics to assist, relieve, empower and safeguard real workers.

 

About EWTS Fall 2017:

The Fall Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit 2017 taking place October 18-19, 2017 in Boston, MA is the leading event for wearable technology in enterprise. It is also the only true enterprise event in the wearables space, with the speakers and audience members hailing from top enterprise organizations across the industry spectrum. Consisting of real-world case studies, engaging workshops, and expert-led panel discussions on such topics as enterprise applications for Augmented and Virtual Reality, head-mounted displays, and body-worn devices, plus key challenges, best practices, and more; EWTS is the best opportunity for you to hear and learn from those organizations who have successfully utilized wearables in their operations. 

Below the Neck: Examples of Body-Worn Wearables in Enterprise

It seems that recently a group of major enterprises, specifically Boeing, UPS, General Electric, ThyssenKrupp Elevator and Lockheed Martin, have been receiving a surge of coverage in articles on the topic of wearables in enterprise. The innovators behind the use of wearables at each of these companies will, of course, be speaking at EWTS 2017, sharing their experiences and best-practice user advice. But those companies are garnering attention primarily for their use of Augmented Reality smart glasses and other heads-up displays. The following are four examples of workers wearing technology below the neck, on the job:

San Diego International Airport

The San Diego International Airport (SAN) partnered with Samsung SDS America and Total Communicator Solutions to make its airport IT operations more responsive. SAN is the first international airport to use Samsung smartwatches, specifically the Samsung Gear S3 and S2 watches. TCS provided the software part of the solution—its Spark Compass intelligent communications platform – integrated with SAN’s “existing operational infrastructure and data solutions” – uses beacon technology to provide location tracking and facilitate communication between smartwatch-wearing airport staff members.

So, when an IT issue is reported, the solution alerts the nearest IT staff person via his or her smartwatch. Once the task is complete, the worker can report the status to a central database using voice commands or text input on his watch. In this way, incident reports and records are automatically fed into the airport’s existing workflow tracking system.

In this case, Samsung smartwatches serve as a user-friendly tool for communication, enabling quick delivery of and responsiveness to IT issues that might cause flight delays. And smartwatches could prove useful in other areas of the airport, for flight attendants, ground crew and passengers alike.

In enterprises that depend in large part upon the consumer-facing aspects of their business, where it’s not a simple matter of making a pair of safety glasses “smart” (think travel, hospitality and retail,) discreet body-worn wearables can be used to achieve hands-free communication and documentation benefits similar to those offered by smart eyewear, in addition to health and safety benefits.

*Learn more about the innovative use of wearable technologies at San Diego International Airport at EWTS 2017, where SAN’s Rick Belliotti will be presenting an exclusive case study.

Reinventing the Safety Vest

Many useful metrics – heart rate, body temperature, perspiration level, along with location and movement – can be tracked by advanced sensor-equipped wearable devices to boost productivity and comfort, improve worker safety, and generate data for optimizing the workplace.

For instance, a smart safety vest that can tell when a worker is in proximity to a danger zone on a construction job site; or a vest that tracks exposure to environmental and other hazards, and can send an alert when critical levels are reached. Companies are indeed working on these kinds of smart, connected vests.

Bosch and Electric Fan Engineering have designed a vest geared towards workers in extreme thermal environments. The vest features three warming levels for workers subject to cold work environments. They’ve also developed a lightweight body cooling system for workers operating under hotter conditions.

From vests to hats: Australian-based SmartCap has developed just that—a smart cap; or rather a headband designed to fit under a worker’s standard headwear, whether a hardhat or regular baseball cap. The SmartCap detects fatigue by reading the wearer’s EEG brainwaves, identifying when he or she might fall asleep and warning the user via voice and vibrations to prevent an incident.

Beyond vests and hats, there are personal voltage detectors, once bulky but now becoming smaller and more lightweight due to advances in wearable technologies; as well as various wearable patches that can detect environmental hazards like UV radiation and toxic gases.

Exoskeletons

Exoskeletons are sort of extreme body-worn wearables that partially or nearly totally cover the body, and they’re becoming more and more lightweight and practical for working environments. This technology was originally developed to help military personnel to manage heavy loads in the field and to assist the physically disabled.

Several companies are working on developing partial- (or modular-) and full-body exoskeletons for hazardous and physically demanding industrial work environments. These suits aren’t necessarily “smart” but it is technology worn on the body that empowers workers by augmenting or supplementing their strength and physical abilities to carry out tasks.

We’re still mostly in the prototype stage when it comes to the category of wearable robotics but the goal is to enable human workers to carry heavy loads with less risk of injury or even perform tasks they would not normally be able to take on. These devices might also minimize fatigue and the physical stress and injuries associated with repetitive tasks or long periods standing on one’s feet in the workplace.

As with smartwatches, exoskeletons are seeing more traction in healthcare (patient care and rehabilitation,) which might have to do with the high price point and that the technology was first imagined for military and medical use. Only time will tell if exoskeletons become common on industrial jobsites, helping workers to lift, carry, push, perform repetitive manual tasks, even stand for long periods of time.

Amey (Midlands, UK)

This company is actually using two kinds of body-worn wearable tech to protect workers: A body camera and a smart t-shirt.

In two pilot schemes, Amey is supplying wearables to its waste collection and household recycling facility teams to address problems of fatigue, stress, and abuse from customers. 28 volunteers are trying out body cameras in response to an increase of instances of verbal abuse and threats of violence towards Amey recycling employees by members of the public they serve. The cameras are attached to workers’ personal protective equipment, providing video footage and audio recordings. When activated by the wearer, the system is triggered to store the previous 30 seconds so that the incident is fully captured.

In the second pilot, specially designed t-shirts capture workers’ physiological data for several days. Using the collected data – heart rate, respiration, pace, posture and level of stress – a detailed picture can be formed of each employee’s health, as well as their level of physical activity each day; and sources of stress can be identified and diminished. For instance, the pilot has so far revealed that reversing a vehicle, working on uneven ground, and working in fast-moving traffic are all causes of distress. Amey followed up by adding cameras and on-board systems to its waste collection vehicles, and is encouraging crews to report areas of uneven ground to the city council.

Make sure to attend EWTS 2017, where an entire panel discussion will be devoted to the use cases and applications of wrist- and body-worn wearables in the enterprise.

 

About EWTS 2017:

The Spring Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit 2017 taking place May 10-12, 2017 in San Diego, California is the leading event for wearable technology in enterprise. It is also the only true enterprise event in the wearables space, with the speakers and audience members hailing from top enterprise organizations across the industry spectrum. Consisting of real-world case studies, engaging workshops, and expert-led panel discussions on such topics as enterprise applications for Augmented and Virtual Reality, head-mounted displays, and body-worn devices, plus key challenges, best practices, and more; EWTS is the best opportunity for you to hear and learn from those organizations who have successfully utilized wearables in their operations. 

Body-worn Enterprise Wearables: Where’s the Love?

Smart glasses, VR headsets and even smart (AR) helmets have been stealing the spotlight when it comes to enterprise wearables, which begs the question: Why haven’t devices worn below the neck taken off in the workplace?

Perhaps smart glasses for enterprise took off faster precisely because the consumer market did not, because there wasn’t a strong enough consumer demand for – or real consumer interest in – smart eyewear (remember the Glass backlash.) Enterprises, however, expressed a lot of interest – chiefly doctors and field service companies – encouraging the solution providers to re-direct their efforts a la Google. But there is a consumer wearables market, mainly for wrist devices; and while this may be an uncertain market, hardware makers seem to be focusing their efforts where they believe lies the greater or more immediate demand. Of course, this is just one theory based upon one person’s observation. Additional theories are welcome, for this is truly puzzling to an enterprise wearable tech advocate such as myself.

Why are wrist wearables manufacturers overlooking the enterprise? Is there hope for wrist- and body-worn wearables beyond corporate wellness? Smart bands, watches, clothing, badges and other accessories–how can real workers use these devices? Are they only “good for” collecting data; and why does ABI Research believe body-worn wearables are the future of enterprise wearable tech? Furthermore, how should we define this category of wearables? Do exoskeletons count? What about smart patches, ingestibles, and basic body-worn sensors?

What ABI actually predicts is that the enterprise wearables market will soon see a shift from wrist- to body-worn devices; with the latter consisting of head-worn devices like smart glasses and VR headsets, as well as wearable cameras, hearables, smart clothing, and mHealth devices. It’s interesting that the research firm breaks the wearables category down to wrist and body, or the wrist and everything else that isn’t worn on the wrist. But how can this shift occur when to my knowledge the body-worn segment (if it includes head-worn devices) is currently much stronger than the wrist, even when you take into account that ABI considers wearable scanners as wrist devices.

As an enterprise wearable tech enthusiast, I see all wearable tech products through a certain (enterprise-colored) lens, always thinking to myself “How might a field or desk worker use this device?” It can be frustrating to demo a wearable or read about a company whose product – in my eyes – could have great enterprise potential yet the marketing is so clearly consumer-focused. For example, consider a body wearable that monitors posture–there are a number of such devices being marketed to consumers, along with smart wristbands and other jewelry that measure motion sickness or that are designed to enhance the wearer’s mental health and emotional wellbeing. The advertising encourages consumers to wear these devices while going about their everyday lives, and especially at the gym. Wearing them to the office or on the job is not an explicitly mentioned use case, so chances are that an enterprise organization that might really benefit from providing posture- or stress-monitoring wearables to its employees is not aware of all the device offerings out there.

Enterprises are being sold on smart glasses and some are using smart wristbands for EHS purposes (see 3 Great Use Cases of Wearable Tech for EHS), but for the most part smart eyewear is dominating the enterprise wearables discussion. Are smart glasses seen as a more worthwhile investment because they boast many features and can be used in multiple ways within a single organization; while a simple wristband containing sensors that measure various aspects of the wearer’s health has more limited applications? Is it because wristbands aren’t as glamorous as AR glasses? Or because to actually make use of the data from a wristband to detect and prevent work-related health hazards requires data analytics and has deeper privacy implications? Is it a failure to see the potential of these devices, either on the hardware or end user side? Again, additional theories are welcome.

But there is hope for a shift. Consider the Nymi story: The Nymi band is an authentication device that was originally marketed to consumers. The technology uses the wearer’s heartbeat as a biometric identifier for authentication. When we first learned of the device, we saw enormous enterprise potential but it wasn’t for a few years that the company itself noticeably changed course, beginning to more heavily promote the band as a solution for securely accessing devices, applications and physical spaces in the workplace.

My prediction is that more consumer-focused body wearable companies are going to follow Nymi’s example in recognizing and addressing enterprise needs for their technologies. Consumer-like smart wristbands and body-worn sensors, as well as smart clothing in the form of work gear and uniforms, will find their place in the enterprise over the next five years. The enterprise is just too great of a market to be ignored.

 

About EWTS 2017:

The 3rd annual Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit 2017 taking place May 10-12, 2017 in San Diego, California is the leading event for wearable technology in enterprise. It is also the only true enterprise event in the wearables space, with the speakers and audience members hailing from top enterprise organizations across the industry spectrum. Consisting of real-world case studies, engaging workshops, and expert-led panel discussions on such topics as enterprise applications for Augmented and Virtual Reality, head-mounted displays, and body-worn devices, plus key challenges, best practices, and more; EWTS is the best opportunity for you to hear and learn from those organizations who have successfully utilized wearables in their operations.