Wearable Technology Proves Helpful for Social Distancing and Health Monitoring

A hot topic in today’s world of industry and manufacturing is addressing the growing gap with skilled laborers and an exiting workforce of experienced retirees. Many companies are looking for ways to attract new personnel and stay current with evolving technology. This is where wearable technology and other advances come into play.

wearable technology

How Virtual Reality Is Closing the Skills Gap in Manufacturing

The manufacturing arena has spent the last decade attempting to prepare for the inevitable workforce transition from baby boomer to millennial, and we are presently in the midst of that handover. Much of the older generation that built up industries like pulp and paper, oil and gas, and overall manufacturing have retired, leaving slim pickings for experienced personnel among those who are left and in their mid-50s.

Another obstacle is that many companies do not know how to attract or maintain the millennial workforce they so desperately need in their plants. This is because millennials are markedly different than the generation they are replacing.

According to Efficient Plant magazine, “Educated, technology savvy, and ambitious, [millennials] value leisure time and the freedom to travel, and prefer to live in large cities. Financial compensation is less important to them than having a fulfilling, interesting job.”

This is why virtual reality (VR) is proving to be a powerful tool to help millennial workers quickly connect their classroom knowledge with the experience-based needs of the real world, thus helping close the skills gap.

“Augmented reality, virtual reality, and data analytics are minimizing training, increasing maintenance efficiency, and raising the level of plant safety.” — Efficient Plant magazine

Additionally, operational processes within plants are increasingly incorporating smart technologies,  more commonly found in residential homes, into the workplace — from the voice control prevalent in Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google Home devices to intelligent wearables that combine GPS, useful apps, alerts, and biometric data capture. Without a doubt, these technologies are quickly transforming what on-the-job and in-the-field experience looks like, from field engineers and maintenance staff to plant-floor supervisors and team leaders.

Wearable Tech During the COVID-19 Pandemic

In addition to addressing the growing skills gap, manufacturers today are faced with a unique challenge — the COVID-19 pandemic.

There was no way anyone — especially industry — could have been prepared for a global disaster of this magnitude. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost. Entire countries have shut down; supply chain came to a screeching halt; many people lost their jobs as a result. Yet, the world kept spinning, and essential work continued.

These are unpredictable times, but this is where wearable technology can again prove useful.

How to Protect Workers with Wearable Technology

As reliability professionals, we’re accustomed to condition monitoring the health and safety of our equipment, but what about ensuring the wellbeing of our human assets

wearable technology for social distancing
SEPCO’s Midwest Regional Manager, Terry Roberts, wears an alarm that beeps when he gets within 6 feet of another person to stay safe while performing essential work.

“Wearable tech is already proving itself on the factory floor,” Processing stated. “Having previously more than doubled in the space of three years — increasing from 325 million in 2016 to 722 million in 2019 — the number of wearable devices worn worldwide is forecast to reach more than one billion by 2022. Smartwatches, smart-gloves, and smart glass with augmented reality (AR) could all be coming to a workplace near you to improve environmental safety.”

Undoubtedly, safety is paramount as we navigate daily life and work responsibilities during the Coronavirus pandemic. And smart technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT), Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), and automation could drastically improve employee safety across many industries.

According to the article from Processing magazine, wearable technologies make it possible to monitor employees’ health in real-time.

Not only can workers monitor their own health, but they can directly share that acquired data with the company. This method of monitoring body temperature detects signs of illness like a high fever and combines it with powerful facial recognition and other biometric identification systems to limit the spread of disease within a facility.

High-Risk Industries Where COVID-19 May Spread Will Benefit from Wearable Technology

The University of Warwick in the U.K. discovered that cold temperatures and damp conditions are directly related to the spread of COVID-19 among plant workers. In fact, according to this research, factories’ indoor areas are ideal environments for the COVID-19 virus to linger. For this reason, food manufacturing plants, for example, are shifting their perspectives on gadgets and safety to better protect their at-risk workforce

“It turns out that cold temperature and forced ventilation in meat processing plants, originally intended to prevent the spread of bacteria, may actually encourage the passing of COVID-19 particles from person to person,” the article said. “For plant managers, these unprecedented times call for the use of new technologies and embracing the IoT and automation in ways that improve worker safety.”

For example, noninvasively installed smart sensors can monitor the temperatures of working environments to minimize time spent by workers in these colder, high-risk areas, or from spending increased time interacting with coworkers, therefore increasing the risk of spreading the virus.

Real-World Examples of Social-Distancing Wearable Technology

Companies such as the IoT-connectivity and security startup Nodle have developed safety-oriented wearable technology solutions for manufacturers in the era of COVID-19, like its M1. This smart device can be clipped to an employee’s shirt or badge or be worn as a necklace. It measures just 2 inches long, tracks distance, and notifies employees with a buzz when they get too close to one another.

social distancing wearable technology
Smart wearable technology that buzzes to help them social distance. Courtesy of Nodle

Additionally, according to Plant Engineering magazine, Iterate Labs developed a location- and contact-tracing device that can be attached to a worker’s wrist or arm, or it can be worn around the neck to promote social distancing in the workplace. The device gives off audio and haptic alerts when workers get too close to one another.

Even larger companies, like Ford Motor Company, are testing wearable, social-distancing devices. According to Bloomberg, a small group of volunteers at a Ford factory in Plymouth, Michigan, experimented with wearable social-distancing devices back in April that could be deployed more widely once the carmaker reopens idled manufacturing plants. These volunteers tried out watch-like wearables that vibrate when employees come within six feet of each other to avoid spreading coronavirus.

Are you seeing more IoT or IIoT technology on the plant floor because of COVID-19? How is your team maintaining social distancing and equipment troubleshooting while completing essential work?

About the Author
Anna Claire Howard is a contributing writer, editor, and content marketing specialist for Sealing Equipment Products Co. Inc. (SEPCO) and has been since Spring 2019. Before those two big life changes, she was the content marketing specialist for Fluke Accelix; assistant editor for Grand View Outdoors, publisher of Bowhunting World, Predator Xtreme, Whitetail Journal, Tactical Retailer, and Shooting Sports Retailer; managing editor for Media Solutions, Inc., publisher of Gear Solutions, Wind Systems, and Thermal Processing magazines; assistant editor for MSI; and the editorial intern for B.A.S.S., LLC, publisher of Bassmaster Magazine and Bassmaster.com. In these B2B/B2C roles, Anna Claire developed an appreciation for the industrial sector, as well as the operators and technicians who make up the workforce. You can find her on LinkedIn at bit.ly/ACHowardLI.