How Industry 4.0 Augments Front-Line Workers

Andrew E. Chrostowski, Chairman and CEO, RealWear, Inc.

Today, industrial companies around the world find themselves trying to adjust to the fourth wave of industrialization—Industry 4.0. This new wave of industrialization finds companies integrating information technology (IT), operation technology (OT), robotics, 5G, the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud and machine-learning/AI technologies in ways that interconnect our physical, digital and even biological worlds.

The new Industry 4.0 technologies that have typically received the most notice are those that automate simple or dangerous tasks that human workers previously performed. Some examples of how industrial companies are using Industry 4.0 technologies to automate such tasks include:

• AI and IoT-enabled high-resolution cameras are being used to detect and prevent flares at chemical plants, blowouts on oil rigs and other safety issues at industrial worksites.

• Robot dogs sniffing out and disabling bombs.

• Smart cloud applications remoting, monitoring and maintaining IoT-enabled industrial water heaters.

• Cameras on assembly lines using computer vision to recognize objects in real time and identify part defects.

However, not all Industry 4.0 technologies are being used to automate simple or dangerous tasks like these. Other new human-centered Industry 4.0 technologies—in particular, wearable technologies like assisted reality devices, smart gloves and smart shoes—can augment human workers’ learning, communications and other capabilities. In doing so, these technologies can enable front-line workers to more efficiently, precisely and safely complete complex, high-value industrial tasks.

Front-line workers are empowered by safe, real-time access to information and expertise.

For example, whether they find themselves at the top of a wind turbine in the middle of Montana, on an oil rig off the Gulf Coast or in a car repair shop at the end of the block, front-line workers can use these human-centered Industry 4.0 technologies to:

• Access cloud-based technical information on the equipment they are working on while keeping their hands free.

• Conduct a virtual meeting with a remote expert who can guide them through the repair of equipment, all without taking their hardhat, gloves and other personal protection equipment (PPE) off.

• View temperature, speed and other real-time operating information data on equipment, collected from IoT sensors installed in this equipment and transmitted to their assisted reality device’s display.

In addition to augmenting front-line workers’ ability to safely receive and process information while they complete complicated and dangerous industrial tasks, these human-centered Industry 4.0 technologies can also augment these workers’ ability to collect information that can make their work more productive and safer.

For example, workers can use assisted reality devices to share videos of their inspection and installation of new equipment with the equipment’s vendor, eliminating the need for the vendor to visit on-site. They can also use these devices to take photos or videos of a piece of malfunctioning equipment that a remote expert can use to determine what the problem is with the equipment. Smart gloves can determine the temperature of the machine when it is touched. Smart shoes can monitor if a worker has fallen down and needs help. Wearables can also monitor temperature, gas levels and other environmental conditions, alerting workers if these conditions reach a level that is dangerous.

Taking human-centered Industry 4.0 technology to the next level.

All of the human-centered Industry 4.0 technologies described above are available and are being used today by front-line workers at industrial companies around the world. In many ways, the question we face now is not if human-centered Industry 4.0 technologies can augment front-line workers’ capabilities, but where do we go from here in using these technologies to further elevate, engage and empower these workers?

Today, voice-controlled technologies are more common in our homes than in industrial settings, but front-line workers are more frequently using voice commands to control their assisted reality devices, wearables and other human-centered Industry 4.0 technologies, even at noisy industrial sites. In the near future, natural language processing (NLP) technologies and AI will serve as real-time assistants for these workers as they do their jobs as well.

For example, front-line workers will be able to ask an AI-enabled virtual assistant to provide them with the next step in the maintenance workstream for the equipment they have in front of them. These assistants will also be proactive, reminding front-line workers of safety protocols if they forget to follow them. In all of these cases, AI-enabled human-centered Industry 4.0 technologies serve the front-line worker, not vice versa.

How can industrial companies prepare their front-line workers for the imminent future of next-level Industry 4.0 technology? First, leaders must share their vision of how these technologies are an integral part of the company’s business strategy. Because the wearable tech we are discussing focuses on the “human-centric” nature of the transformation, making the worker the nexus of control, it answers a critical part of the change management process: “What’s in it for me?” They are designed to help front-line team members work smarter and safer. Connected workers can master new skills more rapidly and move up the learning curve faster, thereby advancing their own careers while helping their employers close the widening skilled worker gap they face.

Change is coming. Technologies will advance and be deployed. The future of work will look different than it does today, just as it looks different today than 50 years ago. The only question is whether the company and its workers will adapt as necessary to influence and implement them. As Dr. W. Edwards Deming once said, “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” Companies that keep their employees and values at the core of this transformation will prosper.

Maximize the value of your most important asset—your workers.

Demographics are destiny, and demographic changes combined with a tight labor market are making skilled front-line workers more difficult to find, recruit and retain than ever before. In addition, while Industry 4.0 technologies can automate some simple manual tasks, skilled front-line workers are still needed to complete practically any non-repetitive complex industrial task.

However, by equipping their front-line workers with human-centered Industry 4.0 technologies, industrial companies can address these challenges by augmenting their workers’ capabilities in ways that make it possible for them to complete these industrial tasks more efficiently, effectively and safely than ever before.


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