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How does wearable tech fit manufacturing needs?

What are the most feasible, near-term applications of wearables in manufacturing and the supply chain?

Wearables for manufacturing is a contentious topic in an uncertain market. Last I checked, being a member of the Borg Collective was not considered a good thing. The introduction of any new technology is challenging, but it's especially difficult when workers perceive that technology as overly invasive or obtrusive.

However, many jobs in the manufacturing industry technically require four hands to effectively guide machinery while consulting information on computers, mobile devices and phones. Wearables could make this balancing act easier. Let's look at a few options and the issues associated with them.

Voice systems have been around for a while, so a wearable version is not a new concept. But even voice is getting a new look, with stylish redesigns that go beyond head gear or walkie-talkies to include other data. The tools may also connect to the Internet and cellular networks. Firms like Voxware and Vocollect (owned by Intermec/Honeywell) have been on the market for decades operating in the plant and warehouse and firmly integrated into manufacturing execution systems and warehouse management systems. Companies have also given their technology fashionable new looks. Orion Labs, for example, provides Onyx, a device that sticks to your lapel but has capabilities similar to that of a smartphone.

Users like wearable voice systems because they are unobtrusive, interactive and require little training. But as we all know, wearables are growing to envelop eyes and hands -- and sensors are even built into uniforms.  

RFID and beacons are already in use at some manufacturing sites, especially those with dangerous working conditions or those that need to maintain tighter security. There is a modest but growing number of deployments moving beyond simple access control to security and safety. Although some vendors are touting that this technology can be used for directed workflows, voice generally works just fine in those cases.

Smart glasses, after many years of languishing in the lab, are popping up from major vendors like Google, Motorola, Microsoft and smaller firms like XOEye. The manufacturing sector is taking a slow and cautious look at these because they need a high degree of back-end systems integration and may be ergonomically (as well as psychologically) challenging for workers who are not used to this type of tool.

However, early pilots show that glasses can provide that extra set of hands so workers can consult information about a work order, product, operational training and so on while they complete tasks. Work that requires safety glasses is probably the best launching place for these because they could be a substitute for what workers already use -- albeit, an expensive one.

If glasses technology is going to take off, it will probably take a second generation of design changes. In manufacturing settings, problems associated with noise, safety and other environmental issues will have to be addressed.

Some companies have shrunk down PC technology so that processors and displays can also be worn as head gear. However, the technology has to be unobtrusive and natural to human ergonomics -- and not make you look like a member of the Borg.

Smart watches and wrist bands are also hitting the market. These are actually just small tablet/PC applications. Simpler than smartphones, they allow integration with enterprise systems and can replace PCs in some cases. They can be useful for workers who move around the floor or yard and don't want to lug around a bigger device.  They seem like the most practical choice to maintain safety, but don't provide the hands-free solution that glasses do.

Most of these use cases and technologies -- beyond voice and RFID tags -- as of this writing are still speculative. Like smartphones, it took the consumer market to lead the way to miniaturization and integration with the Internet. But with thousands of developers committed to experimenting with this technology -- and big money behind integrating with back-end warehouse and manufacturing systems -- it seems like only a matter of time before manufacturers will want to make the transition to wearable tech. Operational equipment turnover only happens every few years so in spite of the hype, it will take some time before we can tell if these newer wearables (smart glasses, wrist bands and such) will become an important market segment in manufacturing.

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