Wearables Empower Today’s Workers
EP Editorial Staff | September 18, 2020
Augmented reality, virtual reality, and data analytics are minimizing training, increasing maintenance efficiency, and raising the level of plant safety.
By Vincent Higgins, Honeywell Process Solutions, Industrial
A visitor to an industrial plant, who had not entered such a facility for five years or more, would be surprised to see how working methods have changed. That’s because—having prepared for the transition from baby boomer to millennial workers for the better part of a decade—we’re now in the midst of the handover. Indeed, many of the boomers who built the modern oil and gas industry have already retired, with the youngest remaining now in their mid-fifties.
Millennials are markedly different to the generation they are replacing. Educated, technology savvy, and ambitious, they 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.
According to Pew Research Center, Washington (pewresearch.org), millennials now constitute the largest generation in the American labor force and industrial companies are adjusting their operating procedures and cultures accordingly. One of the biggest differences between millennials and baby boomers is that, having grown up with technology, millennials are used to finding the information they need in one click—and not by sifting through stacks of technical manuals.
Tour any modern industrial facility today and you’ll notice distinct changes in how workers are being trained and performing their daily tasks.
Educating today’s worker
Whereas baby boomers often worked for a single company for decades, millennial workers typically stay with an employer for just two years before they switch jobs. This reality necessitated complete rethinking of the industry’s traditional, 6-to-12-month-long training cycle.
Research shows millennials respond better to experiential learning than to passive methods such as listening to lectures or watching presentations. Therefore, conventional training practices are being replaced with techniques based on augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and data analytics.
Experiential learning gives millennials what they crave—the opportunity to learn by doing, without the real-life safety risks. Today’s training courses mix AR, in which computer-generated graphics are injected into real-world environments, with VR, which replaces reality altogether with a digital world that trainees can manipulate and/or explore.
Using VR, a trainee might walk around a virtual plant to locate or perform maintenance on a controller cabinet or flow meter. With AR, they can work on the same cabinet or meter projected onto the training-room desk.
Experiential training has proven to be seven or eight times more effective than traditional methods. That’s because AR and VR allow trainees to build skills with remarkable quickness. Experiential learning can reduce training timescales to just two months, allowing employers to onboard workers faster and close the skills gap left by departing baby boomers.
Consumerization of daily rounds
Operational processes within plants are increasingly incorporating technologies more commonly found in our homes, 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. These technologies are transforming the on-the-job experience for everyone from field engineers and maintenance staff to plant-floor supervisors. Here are a few scenarios that illustrate the dramatic changes.
John is a seasoned plant worker who conducts his rounds with a hands-free, wearable headset computer. It’s a far cry from how he used to work when he joined the facility in the 1980s, but he likes the device and is a proponent of technical progress.
As John walks around the plant, he calls up workflows and standard operating procedures on the helmet’s display and edits them using voice commands to reflect best practices.
One morning, the central control room contacts John on his headset and asks him to check a device located some distance away. Using GPS built into the headset, the operator directs him quickly and directly to the equipment in question. Standing in front of the device, John uses voice commands to call up diagnostic information, manuals, and schematics, as well as real-time process information, to troubleshoot the problem in situ. Confident he has identified the solution, he works on the repair, filming the process with his headset camera, along with step-by-step commentary for others to follow in the future.
After completing his work, John saves the video file to the cloud server, to be retrieved and compared later against approved procedures. Then he continues his rounds, ready to be guided to his next task by the control room.
Having just completed basic safety and procedural training, Rita—a new employee and recent graduate—is ready to begin her first-ever round. While making her way to her first task, she takes a wrong turn and strays into a zone in which she’s not qualified to work. Geo-fencing automatically places an alert on her headset display and simultaneously sends another to the control room. An operator immediately contacts her to guide her back on track.
Later, Rita comes across an unfamiliar task. After calling up the operating procedures on her headset, she is still unsure how to proceed. Using voice commands, Rita calls up a video tutorial and commences work, pausing it to complete each step. On completing the task, however, she receives an unexpected device reading. Unsure what to do, Rita calls the control room and is connected to Laura, a senior expert working in an industrial complex in another country. Laura views the video from Rita’s headset, assesses the situation, and recommends appropriate next steps. With Laura’s help, Rita is able to complete the task and continues her rounds while being monitored and supported by the control room.
One of the benefits of connected technologies is that novice workers such as Rita can benefit from the experience of seasoned workers such as Laura—wherever they might be located in the world.
At the end of Rita’s shift, she uploads the digital workflow from her rounds to a common repository with a single click, ready to be reviewed by supervisors or integrated into wider reporting.
If she had been doing the same work five years earlier, Rita would have spent considerable time logging her shift observations and findings in a notebook affixed to a clipboard and transferring that information into a central database. Without that administrative burden, she can maximize her time on the plant floor, performing tasks that contribute to plant uptime and operational efficiency.
Abnormal or emergency situations
Another developing application of connected technology is managing abnormal or emergency situations. Here are some examples.
Through thermal-imaging capabilities in his headset, John becomes aware of corrosion in high-pressure lines that are hidden by cladding. He is particularly concerned because it’s in a heavily trafficked area of the plant. John immediately contacts the central control room, which sends an emergency response team to close off the area and replace the line, thereby eliminating the safety risk.
Later that afternoon, John receives an alert in his headset about an electrical fire in the vicinity. It’s small but has the potential to scale. Using the GPS in his headset, he directs people working nearby to the closest mustering point while the central control room sends the emergency response team to contain/extinguish the fire.
While conducting his work, John feels reassured by the biometric technology incorporated into his headset which detects signs of fatigue, ill health, or injury. He knows that the central control room will be alerted should he fall, or to any change in his sensory abilities. Using GPS data, central operators can guide an emergency response team to him. Similarly, John knows that sensors in his headset will alert the control room should he be exposed to gas leaks or prolonged gas exposure. Having back-up support gives John additional confidence as he carries out his tasks.
During the past five years, we’ve experienced a metamorphosis in how day-to-day work is performed at industrial facilities, coinciding with the arrival of millennials into the workforce. The innovative use of connected devices on the plant floor isn’t simply meeting the specific needs and demands of this new generation, it’s transforming the work experience of the baby boomers that remain. As connected technologies evolve, plant-wide applications will only multiply, allowing workers to perform their jobs more safely and efficiently, and with more satisfaction, than ever before. EP
Vincent Higgins is General Manager for Honeywell’s Digital Transformation/Workforce Competency business, based in Houston. He is author of the book, Social Influence and Genius, A Leadership Journey—A Better Future for your Business and the World.