Building the Future of Exoskeletons: Meet Dr. William G. Billotte

He’s working with BMW, Boeing and others to introduce standards and raising the bar in the exoskeleton market: Meet Dr. William G. Billotte, Physical Scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Vice Chairman of the ASTM F48 Exoskeleton and Exosuit committee. I got to interview Dr. Billotte on the importance of standards and fundamental work of NIST. Read our conversation: (Full bio at the end)

Emily: To begin, could you provide a little background on yourself and NIST? When did you first start working on exoskeleton tech?

W: My background is I’m an engineer and a biologist with a bachelors and masters degree in engineering and a PhD in biology, and I’ve been working in the biology/engineering area for probably 17 or so years, providing scientific and technical guidance to different federal agencies, first responders and other organizations. I’ve worked in a number of different areas: biological detection, first responder equipment, critical infrastructure protection, etc. I’ve been in the exoskeleton area since around 2014. I work for a federal organization, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), part of the Department of Commerce (see here for some history).  I’ve been here since 2009 as a physical scientist.

I worked for the Department of Defense before I came to NIST, and I was a consultant here in the D.C. area before that as a bioscience advisor, ever since 2002.


E: What is ASTM? How did it form and who is involved?

W: ASTM is an international standards development organization and there are a bunch of standards development organizations. It’s a non-profit. NIST works with a number of similar organizations across the world. ASTM is where we set up the F48 Committee on Exoskeletons and Exosuits around 2017. We talked to a number of different standards development organizations and it seemed like the best fit was with ASTM. I’m the Vice-chairman on the F48 Committee but I’m not an employee for ASTM; it’s a volunteer-type thing. Everybody has their day job and does standards also.

Here is a link to a recent paper describing the development of ASTM F4

For your reference, there is legislation that encourages federal agencies to use and participate in voluntary consensus standards [National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act (NTTAA), Public Law 104‐113.]


E: Are the companies actually building and using exoskeletons a part of F48?

W: We’ve got around 130 members. Anyone can join. We have meetings about twice a year face-to-face and then meetings all year long sort of how we are now. We’re trying to get standards out there that meet the needs of industry. That’s how standards work in the U.S.; they come from the ground up. If you look on your computer, the USB port is just one example of the many standards that people use every day and rely upon. Similarly, we want standards so that exoskeletons can be tested and manufacturers can easily demonstrate to their users that they’re safe and reliable. We want some guidance out there, like we just passed one standard for labeling exoskeletons. How do you put labels on these and give the user or buyer some information? That was a standard to help the manufacturers label their products and provide the right info for the user—very basic stuff right now. We’re still at the beginning stages of getting standards out there for exoskeletons. It’s an exciting time because there’s a lot to do.


E: What is the exoskeleton market like today? 

W: Bobby Marinov, who is also on the F48 committee and runs a website called the Exoskeleton Report, has written a number of articles about this on his site, in Forbes and other places. He has a good snapshot of the market, which is this: In the past two years, you’ve gone from 20 or so exoskeletons being used in the automotive industry in a few places in the U.S. to almost 1,000 worldwide, and that’s just the auto industry and mainly on the assembly line. Chris Reid’s team at Boeing has done a tremendous amount of work in this area, too; Chris is actually the leader of one of our subcommittees and he’s very involved in the ergonomics community. We’re having a face-to-face meeting at the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society in Seattle in the Fall.


E: What counts as an exoskeleton?

W: You’ve gotten to the hard question here. We struggled for at least two years, even before the committee was set up, we started working on how to define the term exoskeleton and how is an exoskeleton any different than a smartwatch or smart clothing. Why is a smartwatch not an exoskeleton? It augments you, gives you different capabilities, you wear it…We had lots of discussions like that. When I see one, I know what it is but how do we define it, and that’s how we got to a definition: A wearable device that augments you physically through mechanical interaction with the body (The ASTM standard definition of an exoskeleton is “wearable device that augments, enables, assists, and/or enhances physical activity through mechanical interaction with the body.”)

We’re not trying to exclude anything. For example, there is an exoskeleton in the consumer market that helps you to ski, but there aren’t a lot of products in the consumer space (that’s the only one that I’m aware of). And we don’t use the word partial; we just say it’s an exoskeleton that just happens to be for the upper body like those that help for overhead work. Because we’re not thinking about it as a giant Iron Man suit. There’s another one, a glove that assists you in grabbing—that’s an exoskeleton.


E: What are the top 3 industrial sectors where exoskeletons stand to have the greatest impact?

W: The big three groups are industrial, medical and military. I think these are three areas where exoskeletons are going to move forward the fastest. From what I’ve seen so far, there has been a big drive in the manufacturing sector like automotive, airplane manufacturing, those types of environments. There are some possibilities in the construction industry, but it hasn’t gone as far as we’ve seen in automotive. Another great possibility is the agricultural sector. Think of anything that involves hard physical labor, a task where you have to lift something, or where there is an awkward static posture; those give you a lot of opportunities. Really, the value of exoskeletons comes down to economics: Work-related injuries, musculoskeletal disorders, overexertion—these cost billions of dollars every year. It’s really easy to justify, which is why big and small companies are looking at this. It keeps workers safe and on the job, reduces the risk of injuries, and workers can do higher quality work for a longer period of time. That’s the potential. Do we have concrete evidence for every exoskeleton? No, we need to do a lot more studies, especially longitudinal studies, but there are enough studies out there than you can see the potential.


E: Where are you right now with exoskeleton standards and why are standards so important?

W: Standards are so important to organizations and countries because they help shape a marketplace so that you can have reliable products, safe products, and the ability to sell in a fair-trade type situation on a worldwide scale.

E: Are there any studies to back up the value of exoskeletons in industrial workplaces? How do you test the devices? 

W: NIST is a metrology institute. We do research on how to measure things and help set the measures used by everyone in the U.S. We compare those measures to other institutes around the world. NIST is developing test methods; and so, yes, we are doing some testing but we’re not testing the exoskeletons to test the exoskeletons per se; we’re doing testing with the exoskeletons to figure out how we can test all of them. We’ve gotten a few exoskeletons and developed some load-handling tasks and run a number of test subjects through to test the test method, and that is being documented. That test method will then go into our ASTM F48 committee to get massaged some and at some point it will get voted on and hopefully become a standard.


E: The exoskeletons that companies can buy today haven’t gone through this testing. Is it kind of like the Wild West right now?

W: It’s not exactly the Wild West. There has been a lot of testing, but everyone has done their own testing. That is the power of developing a standard test method because then you can compare devices. Chris Reid at Boeing has tested a lot of exoskeletons, but I can’t take his data and compare it to the data from Ford. I don’t know what tools and metrics they used. That’s why we need a repeatable standard method, so any lab can use that test method and everyone can trust the results. This will lead to a standards based certification process which helps manufacturers show the basic performance and safety of their system and will allow for the end users to not have to inherit the burden of assessing the system other than for company specific applicability.


E: So, the market is kind of regulating itself right now?

W: Well, it’s like any nascent market. The only place that you have regulations right now is the medical exoskeleton market because the FDA in the U.S. regulates all medical products and there are a number medical exoskeletons certified by the FDA that are used mainly in clinics. But it’s different than what you see on an automotive line in that usually the operator of the exoskeleton isn’t the person wearing the device; it’s the nurse or therapist. Think about someone learning how to walk again after a stroke. With exoskeletons, you can give patients “higher doses” of walking in a session with a therapist, speeding up the recovery process.

E: Would the ASTM work directly with the regulatory bodies in different industries?

W: We’re hoping the standards that we develop through F48 will be referenced by regulatory bodies, even the FDA. There may not be any regulation in the industrial market.

Here is a link to the NIOSH Center for Occupational Robotics Research.  They look at exoskeletons also and their research would feed in to any industrial focused standards or regulations on exoskeletons.


E: One of my “pet areas of research” is women in the workforce. Do exoskeletons have the potential to enable more women to work in industrial sectors and is there any testing being done on the female body, which is very different from the male body (height, breasts/hips, even spinal cords)?

W: In the testing we’re doing right now at NIST, we’re using men and women. But we don’t see any exoskeletons out there that can make someone stronger than they are right now. If the job requirement is to lift 100 pounds and you can only lift 25 pounds; the devices I am familiar with won’t lift the weight for you. An exoskeleton would help the person to lift the weight more safely and with more repetition. Some may advertise about giving you additional weightlifting capability but as far as the testing I have seen there isn’t anything that can augment your strength like that. But that’s not really the issue. It’s fitting. We’ve been dealing with this issue for a long time, especially in law enforcement. Body armor was developed for a male physique and slightly modified for females and it doesn’t work very well. We’ve been working for years trying to fix that. I hope the exoskeleton community designs for females from the beginning; we’re not going to design a male-fitting exoskeleton and then slightly modify it for females. There will be exoskeletons that fit better for men and ones designed for the female body and even ones that can be easily modified for any wearer.

E: What do you hope to accomplish in 2020 and when do you think exoskeletons will become standard in industrial environments?

W: I think exoskeletons are well on their way to becoming common in the workplace. Seeing how it’s rolling out in the manufacturing sector, aerospace, automotive, etc. I think they will be even more common in 2020. I’m sort of biased but I want to see more standards so that everyone can have an increased sense of reliability and safety with these exoskeletons. Standards will also help stimulate the market.

 

 

Dr. William Billotte currently serves as a physical scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).  In that position, he helps industrial, military, medical, and public safety communities with their national and homeland security standards and technology needs.  Current activities include serving as a principal scientific advisor to Army for exoskeleton standards and technology issues and serving as the vice chairman of the ASTM F48 Exoskeleton and Exosuit committee.  Prior to joining NIST, Dr. Billotte was a CBRNE scientist for the Naval Information Warfare Systems Command (NAVWAR).  For NAVWAR, he managed programs to test, evaluate, acquire and share information on CBRNE detection and responder technologies. This included supporting the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s New Campus East construction, the FEMA CEDAP (Commercial Equipment Direct Assistance Program), the FEMA Responder Knowledge Base (RKB) and the DHS SAVER program.  Prior to joining NAVWAR, Dr. Billotte served as a bioscience advisor for Booz Allen Hamilton where he supported DoD, DARPA, the Intelligence Community, and DHS in the biotechnology, chemical/biological defense and responder technology areas.

Dr. Billotte holds a Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Dayton, a Master of Science in Engineering from Wright State University, and a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering from The Georgia Institute of Technology.

 

*Image source: NBC News

Wearables in Risk Management: Interview with AIG’s Ron Bellows

I got to sit down and talk with Ron Bellows, Risk Strategist at AIG. What resulted is a fascinating- but long (it’s worth it) – read and a wealth of information. Ron will be speaking at EWTS 2019.

E: To begin, could you provide our readers with a little background on yourself and what you did at AIG? Also, when did you first encounter wearable technology?

R: I’ve been a risk management consultant with multiple insurance companies since 1980. I started playing with wearables probably as early as 1985/86. You may remember Cybermatics: Surface EMG measuring technology was connected to cyber gym equipment for rehab and prevention, so that when someone was working out – in the sports or medical world – you could actually see what the muscles were doing with the surface electromyography. It’s kind of like an EKG. Your heart is a muscle; surface EMG looks at other muscles.

Around ’86, I was working with a physical therapist doing studies on sports medicine and rehabilitation that might have application in the industrial environment. Many workers’ compensation injuries are expensive strain and sprain injuries impacting the musculoskeletal system. Biosensors, from a rehab standpoint, help us manage treatment for someone who has had a musculoskeletal injury. It began in the sports world and medicine, and around 2000 it started to become more pervasive in the industrial environment.

If you think about an athlete who over-trains, the same thing can happen in the industrial world.  Biosensors can measure posture, force, repetition, etc.; and be used to look at someone in the workplace from a preventative standpoint as well as on a pre-hiring/screening basis (i.e., can you handle the physical requirements of the job?) If you took a traditional physical, you might pass, but could you go in and work on a factory floor or warehouse for 8-10 hours a day, 6 days a week? Biosensors to better evaluate somebody before they go on the job to help assess their ability. Second value would be to evaluate somebody in the job to document the exposure they face due to fatigue, endurance, force, repetition and posture—the things that generally lead to ergonomic/ bio mechanic injuries. If you can detail that exposure prior to injury you can do a better job with prevention, training and hiring. However, if somebody does get hurt you can use those same biosensors to help assess exactly where and how badly they are injured, the best treatment options, and if they truly are ok to go back to work again. Those are the three main areas where wearables fit into the industrial arena and workers’ compensation (WC).


E: What exactly do you do at AIG?

R: I’ve consulted with large multinational customers to help them find solutions to their risk management issues. Often, they were most interested in workers’ comp risk because it tends to drive loss frequency and severity, impacts the workforce and absenteeism, and reduces efficiency and profitability. Workers tend to be 30-50% of a company’s operating expense, so if you can reduce injuries you can increase efficiency, profitability, etc. Today with the shortage of workers that we see, a lot of companies are working at a 20% absenteeism rate. Imagine what happens when you can’t find enough people to man the tasks in a factory. If you also have extensive injuries that put people out of work or on restrictive duty, it’s even more difficult to run the business. Making sure people can work safely and come back to the job every day is very important to risk managers. I also help risk managers with issues like fleet, liability, supply chain, business continuity, and disaster recovery—anything that keeps them up at night.


E: You just mentioned a bunch of pain points like the shortage of workers. What are the challenges and pain points for AIG’s clients that are driving interest in wearable technologies?

R: There are really two things: One is traditional safety, making sure we document exposure properly so that we can prevent injuries and do better training. It’s not just job hazard analysis but also the workers’ comp system itself, which is very difficult to manage as the venues are all different and every state has different rules. If we can document exposure, we can better manage an individual pre and post-loss. Many times, we see that older, high tenure workers are driving losses. We’re seeing the average age of workers going up, especially in manufacturing, warehousing, trucking, etc. where you have extensive injuries to the shoulder and back. Those injuries are the most difficult to diagnose, treat, and return to work. If you’re older and you get hurt, it may take you weeks to get back to where you were pre-loss. Our average workforce is in the 40- to 50-year range, so when they have an injury it’s impacted by comorbidity – hypertension, diabetes, obesity – making it more difficult for them to get back to pre-injury status.

Second, many companies today are looking at exoskeletons or other interventions to reduce exposure. When you put an intervention in place you don’t know for sure how much of an impact it’s having on the individual, because everyone is different. With biosensors, we can measure the impact of different interventions and see which ones are having the greatest impact on the worker based on their exposure. For example, I would use different exoskeletons for the upper extremities versus the back, versus the legs. So, it depends on what kind of difficulties workers are having in the workplace. For example, if I have to do static standing all day on a conveyor line, exoskeletons may not be valuable, but the biosensors can tell me what’s going on with the static stress on the lower extremities, which impacts the entire body. I can then look for alternatives like automatic massage therapy, continuous stretching, compression sleeves, to improve endurance and reduce fatigue where the exoskeletons don’t work.


E: What kinds of wearable technologies are you looking at for risk mitigation? Have any solutions made it past the pilot phase to rollout?

R: There are a lot. The biosensor marketplace has exploded in the last several years. We can use biosensors like we’ve talked about from a musculoskeletal standpoint and that’s where most of the impact is seen. But you can also use biosensors to look at an environment: A construction worker going into a pit that may be lacking oxygen can use a biosensor attached to an iPhone that sends a safety signal. You can use a posture monitor for the back like I did with the Visiting Nurse Association. Nurses visiting patients by themselves can be attacked, chased by dogs, fall down stairs, etc. Having an inclinometer or GPS monitor can send an automatic ‘man down’ signal if they’re horizontal. If they can’t push a panic button, their supervisor and local authorities can be alerted to the fact that something is wrong. That’s just one example. Biosensors in chemical plants can look at oxygen-deficient environments and exposure to chemicals and send an alert right away to the individual or supervisor. So, if you’re working remotely in a plant and there’s an ammonia tank with a small leak, the biosensor can alert you to very low levels before you’re overcome. There are so many different ways to use biosensors to alert you to exposure before it creates injury.


E: In most cases are you looking for over-the-counter, out-of-the-box solutions or bespoke devices? Where is the software being made?

R: I review what’s in the market and what’s in development. I try to stay abreast of what’s available so that I can help clients make the best and most informed decisions about how to reduce exposure. There are always several intervention options that could have an impact, so I usually demo and then pilot test the options that fit the particular exposures but also their organization structure and culture. So, I’m always looking to kick the tires on everything around the market.


E: I imagine biosensors come in every form factor at this point. Is it one sensor per device or are you testing multiple metrics?

R: Let’s take posture monitoring as an example, which is huge in workers’ comp because 30-50% of a company’s losses are from strains. Everyone wants to work on musculoskeletal disorders, which also happen to be the most expensive loss type. Inclinometers which measure posture are great because force, repetition and posture are the lead drivers of strain and sprain injuries. You can do heavier work in the power zone between your shoulders and hips, but outside of neutral posture a task becomes more egregious to your body.

Many companies are doing posture monitoring; some are focusing on the upper extremities, some on the low back. Several biosensor companies have produced very good software programs to go along with the inclinometers, showing not only when someone is out of neutral posture but also how many times a day that person is out of neutral posture, for how long, at which tasks, or what times of day, etc. Some biosensors give an automatic response to the employee (like a buzz). That can be good or bad. If I can’t change my posture because the task is set up so that I have to bend a certain way, the buzzer is going to be continuous and become really annoying. That’s where I would take the data to management and operations and say: Here’s Joe and Mike doing the same job but Mike can’t handle the postures. Why? Because he’s a little older and can’t bend as well at the knees. So, posture monitoring without the dashboard is not as effective. The better the dashboard, the better data we have and the more opportunity we have to provide valuable interventions to the physical task.


E: Can the intervention involve changing the way the task is done?

R: Yes. In fact, we can even link biosensors through a software program to a camera, so that as a person moves, we can see both the physical video and an overlay of what’s going on with his or her posture and force over time. While seeing the person do their task in space and time, we’re capturing their force and posture. That becomes really powerful. We can do that over time, creating a dashboard for different tasks, and then give an employer a prioritized list of the most egregious tasks, where high force and high repetition are most likely to generate a musculoskeletal disorder. So, biosensors with a dashboard and video overlay are very powerful in exposure documentation.


E: Can you talk about some of your recent biometrics and exoskeleton projects?

R: Well, anybody familiar with meat processing knows that it’s a very high endurance, high repetition task impacting the upper extremities and back. It’s static stress on the legs, leaning, twisting and bending at the waist, and moving your arms to process meat. Every part of the body is impacted; the repetition is so intense that you’re moving a carcass every 2 seconds. You’re constantly moving, standing in one place doing the same motion over and over, and you’re usually working a 10-hour shift, 6 days a week. Operations, safety and HR know it’s a difficult task but to change the process is very expensive. You might have to move the conveyor circling the entire plant or slow it down, which operations won’t like. Or, you’re going to have to build adjustable stanchions for people to stand up on. Oftentimes in fixed manufacturing plants, it’s very difficult to change the physical process, so we look at other interventions. The biosensors give us data on where the most difficult task/positions are and where management can spend their nickels to make the best impact. You can give them engineering solutions but if they don’t have the money for re-engineering there are alternative solutions like endurance and fatigue management or job rotation, or even just ongoing stretching throughout the day. You mitigate the exposure if you can’t eliminate it. We look for engineering solutions first, but older plants especially have a hard time putting those automation or engineering changes in place.


E: How are you measuring the ROI of the different solutions you’re implementing? What are the KPIs you’re looking for?

R: Primarily, I look at two things when it’s workers’ comp-related: Loss frequency rate: The number of injury accidents per hundred employees (for example, how many strains and sprains we have per task before and after a solution is implemented) and average cost of claim: How does that cost change after the solution is implemented? We try to reduce both frequency and severity of loss.

Here’s a good example: One 24-hour plant of 400 employees had 50 visits to the nurse everyday looking for splints, gauze wraps, and other assistance. You know that the more times people are going to the nurse, the greater the likelihood you’ll have a claim eventually. We implemented endurance / fatigue solutions and then looked at the number of individuals visiting the nurse and in some tasks the number dropped by 80%. That’s telling because it takes a while for the claims numbers to mature enough to tell you statistically significant results. If I have a short change over time, is it just that introducing the solution made everyone more aware? 18 months is about where you have to be to really see a material change in losses. So, we look at other metrics like online perception and symptom surveys. I’ve used therapy to reduce endurance and fatigue injuries and after each session, we give a quick survey asking how the person felt before and after the fatigue management program. We can then see if we’re going down the right road and match up the results to the loss analysis in the future.


E: RFID devices, body-worn (biometric tracking) wearables, and exoskeletons—which category is most mature and deployable today?

R: Posture monitors. The inclinometers and GPS are the most robust and have some of the best software. RFID is good but you have to understand what the exposure is and what end result you’re trying to get to. RFID chips are really good in environments like construction, where it’s noisy, dark and dusty and vision and hearing are impaired. RFID chips give me another sense to avoid exposure. It can also be used for equipment or where people are working very remotely, to see where somebody is working in a plant and where they’ve been. But posture monitors are probably the most robust in terms of software because, again, everyone’s trying to mitigate the strain and sprain injuries. Industrial hygiene (IH) exposure doesn’t have the same frequency of loss as strains and sprains and has been controlled very well over the last 20 years; it’s gotten a lot of attention and there are so many good programs in place.


E: Is ergonomics slightly newer?

R: Ergonomics has been developing since the mid-80s, but it’s interesting that we haven’t found a silver bullet solution, so we’ve done a lot of training. Office ergonomics got a lot of attention. ‘Ergonomic’ became a buzz word and a marketing ploy, and now a lot of equipment is considered ‘ergonomic.’ For example, you can buy a snow shovel that’s “ergonomic”, but the actual exposure to the individual hasn’t really changed. Carpal tunnel syndrome was huge in the late 90s and early 2000s, then the Mayo Clinic and other studies said that the aging workforce is driving CTS more than typing. Today in the workers’ comp arena, an individual’s physical condition can be as much a factor in injury development as the workplace exposure. The comorbidity or illness can make a simple injury so much more difficult to diagnose and treat and this is why wellness and ergonomics need to be considered together. Wearables are helping us communicate exposure to the operations managers who usually hold the intervention purse strings. Ergonomists haven’t done a great job of this in the past, but the biosensors give us data on an individual or task basis that is very telling for operations, human resources and safety teams.


E: How have employees received wearables? What has been the feedback? Are there privacy concerns and how are you dealing with that?

R: A lot of the biosensors are applied directly to the skin and managers are very skeptical or skittish about that. So, in looking at which wearable is going to work for a company you have to consider the unions, female workers, people that don’t speak English etc. You have to think about having an interpreter, if someone will have an allergy to the spray or adhesive used to attach the biosensor… What if you have a lot of hair on your back? Part of my focus is always communicating these considerations to the risk manager: Given the exposure model they face and the loss profile they have, which tasks are driving the losses, what’s the exposure model for the people doing those tasks, and what are the right biosensors to use to fit their organization’s culture.


E: Are they more receptive if the sensor is in a bracelet?

R: You get better, deeper data especially from a force standpoint if you can attach something to the skin. If you can’t you have to use a halter monitor around the chest or a belt-worn device, something on the biceps if upper extremities are the issue, a bracelet on the arm etc. That’s why it’s important to know the loss profile and exposure model for the risk before adopting a wearable product–what tasks are driving loss and what options the company is willing to consider for solutions.


E: What is your hope for the future as for how wearables are developing? What’s a big development you’d like to see?

R: Right now, biosensors are really good at looking at exposure, giving us a dashboard and helping us come up with solution options. Of course, you need to know what’s available and understand the organization culture; but we’re not using biosensors to their full effectiveness in the hiring, and screening process or the post loss injury management.  In WC, early objective medical diagnosis is critical to managing loss costs especially with strain and sprain injuries, and biosensors can be a substantial benefit in that area – including developing telemedicine programs.  We’re also not always closing the loop between risk management, safety, HR and operations in terms of exposure understanding and the implementation of interventions. Consider how many workplace tasks are developed with the idea that there will be one, two or three injuries per year in that task? The answer is none, but we accept those types of metrics as part of the cost of production. We’re collecting good loss and exposure data but not integrating safety intervention into process the way we do with quality. Biosensors give me the detailed exposure information I need to express business and human cost and help qualify the rationale for the interventions needed to reduce exposure. If I can provide detailed documentation of exposure, I can communicate better to Risk Management so they can do a better job of funding exposure reduction solutions and provide the insight for stronger diagnosis, treatment and return to work practices if a loss occurs. You’d be amazed how many loss profiles show repeat injuries, which get exponentially more expensive.  Biosensors can therefore have a significant impact in all three areas of the WC exposure control model:  Hiring, Screening and Deployment; Prevention and Training and Post Loss Injury Management…

 

Photo credit: Lara de Oliveira Corselet dB via photopin (license)

Ron will present a case study at the upcoming 6th Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit on September 19.

Interview with Sam Murley, EHS Digital Acceleration Leader at General Electric

With workplace injuries and accidents costing U.S. employers alone over $60 billion a year, it’s not surprising that safety has emerged as a key productivity-boosting and cost-saving application for wearable technologies and other emerging tech. I spoke with Sam Murley, EHS Digital Acceleration Leader at General Electric, about how GE is currently piloting and deploying body-worn sensors, exoskeletons, AR/VR, and more along with Sam’s vision for the future of EHS. Sam has been an inspiring thought leader at several Enterprise Wearable Technology Summits–don’t miss his case study “EHS 2.0 and The Predictive Digital Model” this October in Austin at EWTS 2018!

 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

E: To start, could you provide us with a little background on yourself and your career, and what you do at GE?

S: I’m the EHS Digital Acceleration Leader at GE and oversee the innovation and emerging technology portfolio for environment, health and safety (EHS) . Our EHS innovation portfolio focuses on incubating the exploration and accelerating the adoption of emerging technologies and wearable devices through a Pilot-to-Deployment process. The goal is to eliminate certain hazards and risks within work environments, increase safety in general, increase operational excellence, and drive efficiency to give time back to frontline EHS teams through digital means.


E: Can you give us an example of a wearable tech pilot or idea that you ran by employees and got off the ground?

S: We have roughly 2,000 wearable devices being evaluated or piloted at this time in addition to wearables that are being deployed. They fall into 6 technology categories: Smart eyewear/heads-up displays; exoskeletons and ergonomic sensors; industrial hygiene monitoring IoT devices; lone worker management devices and platforms; hazard-sensing bands; and robots and drones that can perform hazardous inspections while keeping someone safe on the ground. We have nearly 65 pilot programs running globally, supporting almost 170 individual teams.

Something really fresh and about to make it past the pilot stage are ergonomic sensors. The tech allows EHS to do what it does today but takes it from pen and paper to a sensor and connected system in order to understand who’s at most risk and why, who needs coaching or intervention—you can’t do this as effectively by watching someone over the course of a month and recording the data by hand. With wearable tech, you can do it in 24 hours.

Say John Doe was at a critical safety score nearing a back injury last week: We made changes in the work environment and his safety score went back up. Or, maybe it continued to trend down, giving EHS insights to try a form of mechanical intervention such as an exoskeleton. 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.


E: So, how do employees react? How do you protect employee data?

S: It is important and absolutely necessary to manage the risks that new technology can introduce.  In general, for every technology we evaluate and ultimately use, we take it through a comprehensive and thorough data privacy and labor relations review. We partner with global and regional compliance teams and have a self-service innovation hub where business leaders, EHS teams, and employees can learn more about the different technologies, join a pilot, or learn how to use deployment ready wearables.


E: You mentioned robots for inspection. How can robots increase safety and productivity and for what types of use cases and tasks?

S: A few use cases come to mind such as confined space entry, where work is performed at heights, and hazardous inspections. Instead of having a worker perform a visual inspection inside a large tank, EHS can deploy tracked and aerial drones, sending the companion robot into the environment with a front-facing camera that can be controlled and viewed from any remote location—the human is still making the decisions but is now augmented by the robot. If there are harmful hazards workers could be exposed to, it might be a good opportunity to introduce a robot, something that crawls or has a magnetized track (think of working at heights). With exoskeletons, the question is “Where’s the less hazardous work being performed consistently or in more repetition?” A welder for example who experiences high shoulder fatigue at the end of his shift might benefit from the use of a shoulder exoskeleton. It just comes down to the hazards and how often the task is performed.


E: Is there any one major problem or obstacle you encountered and successfully worked through?

S: Yeah, and we’re continuing to work through it: Deployment. When you have something that has been evaluated and piloted by hundreds of users, when does that just become the norm? It’s making the transition collectively, looking at it not as emerging technology but as off-the-shelf digital PPE (personal protective equipment). These are things that can save lives today, just as your insulated gloves would. That’s a big leap, but we’re doing it at GE.

These technologies don’t live in labs; they’re ready to go. The obstacle lies in how you communicate that. The effort of taking it to true deployment involves essentially running an internal marketing campaign with commercials and launch kits. You have to build awareness, find stakeholders, understand where the tech should go and who to introduce it to after the pilot. This new product introduction (NPI) is just as, if not more, important than your pilot.


E: I think a few years ago it was how do I create a proof of concept, how do I pilot, and now it’s how do I scale, which is a good sign. So, as far as the different devices you’re testing and using, how do you find these solutions?

S: All sorts of ways: Connecting with folks at events like EWTS or AWE, through industry organizations, with Google alerts, and by benchmarking and sharing tech with other organizations. We’re always on the lookout for new startups, trying to link up with companies coming into the space. Behind that it’s “Okay, as a company what are the top 10 EHS issues we’re trying to solve? Let’s take the data we have and use it as a compass to find the right solutions.


E: How do you measure or determine the success of incorporating new technologies at GE?

S: What we look for is the ability to quantify that the technology is actually reducing the likelihood of injuries and/or generating more time (reducing the burden of managing risks) and using data to understand the impact. We can reduce 10 ergonomic injuries this year, but what does that mean and what, then, is the ROI of doing a broader investment?


E: Are you looking at AR+VR for EHS or is it still futuristic?

S: Definitely. From a corporate EHS side, we’re looking at it in terms of how to transfer knowledge, how to modernize training packages and content to make it more impactful and increase retention. That’s where true AR and VR make a lot of sense—digitizing training, streamlining the knowledge transfer from systems and records into the work environment, and transferring domain expertise from the more experienced workforce to create content for the junior workforce.


E: Are you using VR to train for dangerous situations that are hard to simulate in real life?

S: Yes, for electrical safety. We’ve got a project going on right now that takes an operator through a complex and highly hazardous electrical safety procedure, showing him the risks in a virtual but realistic way. Digitizing the outcomes of those high hazards and visualizing it to the end user really sticks when workers go out into the real-world environment.


E: Do you think you’ve found your killer application or are you still looking?

S: I don’t know if it’s quite one thing. A system that can do a couple of things would provide immense value. Something like smart eyewear that gives the user access to content during a repair and lets him or her pipe someone in from halfway around the world when encountering a problem. Something that alerts me, as a worker, to unknown energized equipment around me (a voltage sensing band) and also helps determine operationally why one workforce is being exposed to a danger while another doing the same task isn’t. Is it training or malfunctioning equipment?

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 and do data analytics. Those are killer platforms and there are a few out there that we’re using right now.


E: What is the future of wearable technologies at GE and in EHS in general?

S: In the very near future the technology will mature and we’ll completely digitize the way risks are managed. I think everything is going to have ‘smart’ in front of it. I mean we even have smart safety shoes now, hazard vests, safety glasses, hard hats…Everything is being digitized. 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 (0 injuries and accidents).


E: What would be your advice to EHS managers in smaller organizations just beginning to look at different emerging technologies like wearables?

S: The great thing about coming in new today is there is so much that has already been done for you to leverage. It’s important to start with the problem: What are your critical injury categories at a site, regional and organizational level and then connect the dots to technology solutions. With any new idea, there will probably be someone out there working on it who may have a solution in place, so don’t be afraid to partner externally. In sum, have a plan: work from your problem statement first; leverage what’s been done in the past; and ensure you are able quantify the impact of new technology through existing and new data insights.

 

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 #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 proposal and buy Super Early Bird tickets now at www.aweeu.com.

 

Image Source: Seeking Alpha

Wearables in Manufacturing: Interview with AGCO’s Peggy Gulick

Welcome to another exclusive interview with a top user of wearable technology in enterprise. From world-class physicians to leading innovators in industry, we give you insight into the experiences of those paving the way for wearables in the workplace–in their own words.

We recently sent over some questions to Peggy Gulick, Director of Business Process Improvement at AGCO. AGCO is a global leader in the design, manufacture, and distribution of agricultural equipment; the company’s use of smart glasses is one of the best – and most successful – use cases to date. Read Peggy’s thorough and enlightening responses below, and to hear more from this wearable tech pioneer, you can watch Peggy’s hit presentation from last month’s Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit. Enjoy!

 

BrainXchange (Q): To begin, how about you provide us with a little background on yourself and your career? What does your job entail, and how/when did you first learn about wearable technology?

Peggy Gulick (A): I am an English and Art major gone wrong 🙂 Late in my educational endeavors, I realized that I thrive on, and am genetically disposed to, process and the pursuit of perfection. Once into the business world, I found myself marrying my BS in Computer Science with a thirst for more and more knowledge of the why’s and how’s of business processes, from the front office all the way to the manufacturing floor. My path from Arthur Anderson to IBM, Jarden Pure Fishing, and now AGCO has given me the foundation to make a career out of systemic and sustainable thought and change management. Through lean thinking and a cavalry of engineers, system analysts, application programmers and forward-thinking, hungry business process owners, there is never a dull day in the quest to make employees more interactive and organizations more efficient and profitable.

Time has presented the world with more tools to add value in systemic and sustainable solutions, especially in our manufacturing excellence journey. A simple problem – tablets being dropped from 12-foot high tractor tops during final factory inspection quality checks – prompted us to think outside of the box for technology solutions that could not be dropped but were readily available. With open-minded leadership and a group of engineers ready to prove the concept of wearable technology as either fun or function (or both!), we were on our way to thought-provoking testing, incredibly partnerships, and cutting-edge solutions that have already proven their value.

BrainXchange (Q): When did it become apparent to you that wearable tech – specifically, smart glasses – could benefit your business? How is the technology used at AGCO?

Peggy Gulick (A): In December 2013, we knew that wearable tech may play an important role in our company’s vision. Smart glasses, although a new concept to industry, presented an idea to fix an ongoing issue with broken tablets in Quality gates and inspection areas. We immediately began proving the theory that wearable technology, specifically in the form of eyewear, was a tool and not a toy. When a process calls for real-time input of data in order to provide timely information to prevent quality issues, even a few seconds to find a misplaced tablet or walk to a terminal to input results is too long. Exasperate the situation with broken tablets, frustrated employees, and consequential rubber stamping of results and voila! the idea was born. When the tool is literally incorporated as a part of the employee’s person and data input is a simple tap or word away, information becomes more meaningful and timely and repeat problems decrease in volumes immediately.

The use of the technology was piloted in our Quality area, specifically the final factory inspection. We have since broadened the use to Assembly and Paint work instructions. What started as a niche application has quickly expanded to plant-wide visions and a multitude of functional areas clamoring to try out their ideas for leaner, more quality-driven processes aided by wearables.

BrainXchange (Q): What did it take to incorporate smart glasses at AGCO? Did you seek out technology or software partners? How did employees react? Were all on board with the idea of wearing the devices while they worked?

Peggy Gulick (A): Being on the front end of emerging technologies certainly has its ups and downs. The business case, when we started, was more a kiss and promise due to the disruptive nature of the technology and the lack of benchmark solutions. Using a purposed consumer product in the enterprise proved to be challenging. Our goal in our initial experimentation with hardware solutions was to prove their wearability, ergonomically acceptable form, and overall function for long periods of time. Once we determined the acceptability rating of the tools, we quickly focused our efforts on application partners. We determined that we had neither the bandwidth nor the industry benchmark to program the software in-house. We began our search, mostly through internet queries and In Mails to find a partner that was willing to focus their development efforts on improving the plant floor experience – specifically productivity – and realize actual benefits (not just the cool factor) while changing the paradigm for all manufacturing.

The most noted and newsworthy implementations of wearable technology applications at the time were medical. Research in medical development teams led us to a couple of companies that were experimenting with wearables. We quickly complimented each other: AGCO with the vision and willingness to build requirements, test versions, and provide timely and measured feedback; and the developers with the technical expertise to make it happen. We chose a company in Belgium, Augnition, for their incredible knowledge base, technical skills, experience, accessibility, and eagerness to broaden their manufacturing partnerships. Our partnership with Augnition – now called Proceedix – is the backbone of our solution and to-date success. Additional partners were sought to provide safety shields that meet our OSHA requirements; and, finally, our device management needs, in order to not only simplify version upgrades but to secure our devices. Like a three-legged stool, each of these partners are essential elements necessary to run a successful enterprise solution.

BrainXchange (Q): Did you encounter any major challenges in implementing the technology? How did you overcome the obstacles you faced?

Peggy Gulick (A): Great question! Although I would have said in the early stages of the project that the utter lack of companies and vendors with actual solutions to benchmark and apply created challenges, we have not only risen above that but have reclassified it as an advantage. We have remained true to a very strong vision based on input from engaged employees and lean processes. We have had the opportunity to have a strong voice with our partners, adding value to their solutions as well as our factory.

This project was different than other projects in our plant due only to the disruptive nature of the technology and vision. Sponsors, resources and partners were all needed to insure success. Getting buy-in may be tough in some companies, but my leadership was willing to commit to the core requirements of the pilot and take a risk on a somewhat crazy idea.

Every milestone was a celebration and led to a new test. Key milestones included: determining that smart eyewear was ergonomically compatible; creating an application that ran on the smart eyewear; making sure the glasses met OSHA requirements and safety policies; and insuring the devices were secured and the application was manageable.

BrainXchange (Q): How did you gauge or determine the success of incorporating smart glasses at AGCO? By positive employee reaction, customer feedback, or other measured benefits or improvements?

Peggy Gulick (A): This project is no different than any other that requires capital. The business case needed to show recordable value within a specified time period. Since the metrics were difficult to apply numbers to, we knew that there was a greater risk of failure, both in perception and quantification. We strategically chose to measure value through process time reductions, quality improvements, and safety incident reductions. In addition, since employee acceptance and ergonomic and cultural fit are critical success factors, we knew that change management was going to be more essential to obtain and audit closely throughout the project.

In the past few weeks, we have been fortunate to present our project to broader audiences sharing similar visions. The incredible acceptance of the work that we have done, including winning the Highest Achiever Award for Internet of Things in Manufacturing Leadership, and the strategy forward has reminded us of the success to date. The initial assessments and time studies have shown up to a 25% decrease in process time and significantly reduced quality issues, driving Quality Right First Time. We have increased the business case, reset the gauges, and plan to continue to implement smart wearable technology solutions throughout our plant, from component manufacturing to finished product inspection.

BrainXchange (Q): AGCO seems to be using smart glass technology in a number of applications, including for checklist documentation, on-the-job training, and safety. Do you plan or hope to use smart glasses in any other ways?

Peggy Gulick (A): The Jackson plant doesn’t plan on resting with just the smart glass benefits in quality and assembly. We have detailed business requirements and functional specifications for usage in operation management systems, standard work instructions, and on-the-job training, welding control point data allowing employees to make decisions and even correct errors, warehouse picking and receiving, streaming data from the field to technicians in the plant for real-time problem resolution, and, finally, enhancing our plant tour experience. As we have developed the current business requirements and beat our initial business cases in productivity, quality and safety metrics, I know that we continue to pursue best-in-class manufacturing in Jackson, MN with Manufacturing 4.0 and wearable technology at the forefront of our operational excellence.

BrainXchange (Q): Have you explored any other wearable tech devices besides smart glasses? Can you see other wearables making an appearance in your workplace in the future?

Peggy Gulick (A): We have experimented with multiple brands of smart glasses, including Vuzix, Epson, and Google. We have also incorporated ring scanners to buffer the smart glasses in scan-intensive work areas. We also tried smartwatches. The smartwatches that we tried all required a connection to an Android phone to function. We had specific guidelines to our strategy, including avoiding tethering and dependency on other devices, preferring a standalone device.

When choosing the hardware, we have insisted on a solid business case, although we have allowed some leeway in terms of the “cool factor business case” in order to get the tools on the floor and in the hands of employees, especially those outside-the-box thinkers seeking ways to improve their work areas.

You need to know the value that the wearable will bring to the business area in order to prioritize implementation strategies and stay committed to sustainable applications. In order to do this, you must benchmark the current state, even though it may be difficult to put accurate metrics in place to determine improvements on initial pilots. For AGCO, walking distance to get information (bill of materials, sequenced instructions, images) and safety audits specific to the use of hands for climbing, assembling and receiving materials were essential. All seven wastes of lean manufacturing – Transport, Inventory, Motion, Waiting, Over-Processing, Overproduction, and Defects – have ultimately become metrics for AGCO as we continue to audit our successes and improve our business cases. We have found the voice prompting and recording to be invaluable in areas that require real-time information and data collection, especially when the employees are being asked to climb.

Side note: It is hard to resist bringing additional technology into the plant. The advancements that are occurring as the market realizes the value of wearables in the enterprise continue to enhance the “wow” factor. We have stayed true to the tools that we began our journey with, knowing that in the end the success will be the sustainability in our plant and the breadth of the application (Proceedix) to support multiple hardware platforms as the market grows and changes.

BrainXchange (Q): Is there a wearable gadget you would like to see invented for your business? Describe your ideal wearable device.

Peggy Gulick (A): That is a tough question. As I let my mind wander with big thoughts and idealistic solutions, it is difficult to process past the litigious society we live in. So, for this response, I am going to ignore the privacy and security issues that will be at the forefront of wearable tech advancements, and graciously leave their pursuit to the experts.

Focusing on the critical points of communication that drive data captures, information processing, decision making and finally execution, I believe the wearable market will continue to focus on eyes, ears, and mouth specific to the business cases we are currently pursuing. We already have collaborative robotics enhancing human ability to work stronger, more accurately and efficiently. Wouldn’t it be cool if the devices we choose to enhance the critical senses were inherently safe, less invasive (even invisible!), and focused on synergizing the enterprise lines of communication currently existing in isolation? The tools will need to connect and support all linkages of physical and automated work, in addition to being ergonomic and user-friendly. Really, this is pursuant of the focus on the Internet of Things.

I hope to experience Orbit City before I leave this earth. George and Jane Jetson showed us a world where day-to-day life is leisurely, mostly due to far-fetched (or are they?) robotics and smart, interconnected virtual labor-saving devices.

BrainXchange (Q): Do you use any personal wearables while not on the job?

Peggy Gulick (A): I wear a smartwatch to gauge my sleep, heartrate and exercise performance. I do not use smart glasses once I leave the plant. I depend on my smartphone for voice guidance and to keep me informed (oftentimes too informed). As technology continues to advance for the consumer and the enterprise, I find myself seeking ways to widen the fine line that exists between work and family. Accessibility is a smart device-enhanced expectation. I am thrilled to be moving it from my personal world and applying it to my enterprise strategies, where real-time information and decisions drive profit.

Q and A: Epson Partners with Atheer to Harness Power of Professionals

Atheer’s partnership with Epson was announced last week at EWTS 2016. Working with Epson brings a level of expertise in enterprise that is important to Atheer, as more and more interested enterprise companies are looking for flexible, collaborative tools for their workforce. We “sat down” with Atheer to learn more about the new partnership and what it means for the enterprise wearable tech space.
Continue reading “Q and A: Epson Partners with Atheer to Harness Power of Professionals”

Interview with an Innovator: Gap’s Michael Perman on Wearable Tech

Welcome to another exclusive interview with a top user of wearable technology in enterprise. From first-class physicians to innovation seekers in industry, we give you insight into the experiences of those pioneering the use of wearables in the workplace–in their own words.

We recently sent over some questions to Michael Perman, Dean of Innovation at a little well-known retail brand called Gap. Read his answers below, and catch his presentation “C’est what? Leveraging Mindful Design for Innovation” at EWTS East in Atlanta this June.
Continue reading “Interview with an Innovator: Gap’s Michael Perman on Wearable Tech”