Imagine a shop floor: forklifts buzzing, machines creating parts of all shapes and sizes, and workers performing various tasks in all areas of the factory. All of this happens simultaneously, during all shifts of the day. As productivity on the shop floor continues to increase, manufacturers are looking at ways to keep employees safe, yet improve shop floor efficiencies. One way manufacturers can do this is to incorporate wearable technology on the shop floor.
While most discussions of wearable technologies today are focused on consumer products like fitness buds and the new Apple Watch, there’s potential for manufacturers to use this same low-cost, high-benefit technology on the shop floor. Smart phones and tablets, as well as those smart watches, can be used to access corporate information, schedules, inventory balances and the like from anywhere at any time. Bringing smart, Internet of Things (IoT) devices into the plant can improve visibility of activities, processes, location of parts, products and equipment, and in turn improve worker safety. Using this technology, we can design solutions for the shop floor of the next 10 years.
Our designers are looking at “safety vests” with embedded sensors that link to the plant network. Location sensors, in a type of intra-plant GPS environment, can track the exact location of the vest and its wearer. A forklift, with a connected display and appropriate software, could then keep track of all pedestrians (equipped with vests) throughout the warehouse. The driver would be able to see (around corners and everywhere) when someone is close by. The vest wearer could also sound an alarm or otherwise to indicate an approaching truck. The warehouse can be one of the most dangerous places in the factory. The IoT safety vest could change that while allowing lift trucks to go faster and be more productive since they wouldn’t have to slow down to avoid non-existent pedestrians (or other trucks).
The smart vest could also house environmental sensors to monitor exposure to hazardous conditions, warning the wearer and logging the event. It could monitor temperature and help workers avoid steam, extreme heat, or other hazards. “Sniffers” could watch for dangerous chemical gasses or radiation with enhanced central monitoring – the vest, after all, will be connected to the plant network so warnings and monitoring go into the log as well as feed local warnings and alerts.
Eventually, augmented reality will find its way into the plant as these devices are first developed for the consumer market then become affordable for widespread use, including manufacturing. But today, low-cost webcams, sensors of many varieties, location-aware devices and more are available off-the-shelf to help manufacturers leverage the IoT for visibility, productivity, and worker safety.