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Industrial wearables and battery considerations

01 May 2019

Wearable technology has blossomed into a must-have accessory for consumers. However, wearables also present several opportunities for managing and improving processes in the industrial sector. Here, Neil Oliver of battery specialist Accutronics, part of Ultralife Corp., explains some of the key design considerations of batteries for the next generation of industrial wearables.

With the increasing adoption of the Internet of Things (IoT) in the industrial and manufacturing sector, industrial wearables are expected to accumulate significant growth in the coming years. In fact, it’s forecasted that industrial wearables will grow close to eleven per cent between now and 2022.

So, while many people associate wearable technology principally with consumer electronics, this is not its only use. Batteries are now becoming available for an ever-wider range of industrial wearable applications.

Wearables also have significant prominence in navigation systems, and we have seen a greater uptake of wearable technology in industrial and manufacturing settings. Industrial wearables can help managers improve factors such as health and safety, facility maintenance and logistics.
For example, a wearable device can be used to detect injuries and even notify employees when there is a potential safety risk. In addition to this, some wearables can be used to make sure staff rotation occurs, minimising the chances of fatigue and repetition causing risk or injury.

In a hospital, doctors can use wearables that measure vitals, without the patient being restricted to a bed, but can also use items such as the SensiVest. This vest is used to prevent recurrent heart failure by measuring the level of fluid in a patient’s lungs and sends the information to a doctor’s computer, allowing the doctor to change the medication if the level of fluid raises.

One example of how wearables are used outside of a hospital environment is created by Kenzen, manufacturers of a wearable smart patch that analyses the electrolytes, metabolites, small molecules and proteins in sweat. These can then indicate through a smartphone app if the body’s glucose levels are too high or if someone is dehydrated.

Meanwhile automotive and other manufacturers are increasingly using wearable devices such as the Noonee Chairless Chair lightweight exoskeleton, which has small locking motors. This invention was primarily designed for manufacturing environments, where employees are required to stand for long periods of time and standard chairs would be either an obstacle or a safety issue.

Another reason for integrating industrial wearables is to increase plant efficiency. By tracking employee movements, managers can use this data to improve current processes and highlight issues that they may not have been previously aware of. Similarly, industrial wearables can also be used as a method to shorten communication loops.

IoT devices collect data in real-time and can be set-up to notify engineers with important information or updates via safety alerts or texts. Hands-free wearable technology can provide engineers with easy access to live data, documents and procedures. This makes it possible for colleagues off premises to advise engineers, when necessary, in the field or on the plant floor. In this context, wearables can also bring niche expertise to the issue in minutes rather than days, avoiding delays.

There is no doubt that wearables can widen the scope of opportunities for management teams. By connecting workers, equipment and tools, industrial plants and manufacturers can boost productivity, safety and efficiency.

While we are seeing a rollout of industrial wearables, there are still a number of challenges original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) have yet to overcome, such as accessibility. Being able to meet accessibility requirements for wearables is important because of the limited interface space options OEMs have to work with.

From a design perspective, for example, visual interfaces can be complex because of the different lighting and voice features that OEMs are expected to fit. Similarly, wearable devices require effective power management, which can often be compromised because of the limited battery space available in the device.

Anshuman Singh, co-founder of intelligent insole manufacturer ReTiSense, has emphasised the importance of the initial design concept in the development of wearables and smart devices. “Design encompasses the incorporation of technology in a product and hence the two go hand-in-hand,” Singh says. “If companies do not obsess over the design, the technology, however good it may be, will fail with the product.”

This is why it is important that OEMs and design engineers consult with battery manufacturers as early as possible in the design process. By doing this, they can look at available battery technology, gauge the sizes and formats available, look at power availability and then decide on the best solution for their products.

Ultralife, for example, is focusing on the trend for smaller and lighter devices in the field of portable and wearable electronics. Their Thin Cell range of pouch-cell batteries offer an energy density of up to 500Wh/lb and 400Wh/kg. This is a much higher rating than the best lithium coin-cells that are currently available on the market.

The high energy Lithium Manganese Dioxide chemistry means manufacturers do not need to increase the size of the wearable device to fit a long-lasting battery. Also, as thin cell batteries can be manufactured as thin as 0.4mm, they reduce the size of the components going into the wearable device.

In addition to this, the range has been tested to the stringent requirements of UL1642 for safety, as well as UN testing for transportation.
There is no doubt that wearable technologies have the potential to revolutionise and improve existing industrial processes and safety. With different applications being developed every day for the industrial wearable market, battery research and development will continue to innovate and provide power for these increasingly important devices.

About the author

Neil Oliver is technical marketing manager at Accutronics and has spent more than two decades in the battery manufacturing sector. Neil’s role entails working with global original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to develop customised rechargeable battery solutions for portable electronic products.

Accutronics is part of Ultralife, which has expanded beyond its initial commercial and military battery business to include custom engineering design and services, tactical communications systems and a wide range of power accessories for industrial markets.

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