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Wearables & PPE in Industry 4.0

04 November 2019

The fourth industrial revolution is seeing changes in every aspect of manufacturing and resource extraction, including worker safety. While 20th century personal protective equipment (PPE) will continue to be necessary in hazardous environments, the need for personnel to enter those environments is decreasing. 

The FPSO BW CATCHER uses augmented reality to communicate with shore
The FPSO BW CATCHER uses augmented reality to communicate with shore

The proliferation of sensors collecting process and production data from vital assets, combined with wearables and platforms for remote collaboration, means fewer trips to hazardous environments.
Occupational safety has come a long way since the first industrial revolution. In fact, we were well on our way to the second – with the introduction of electricity and emergence of mass production –before seeing any significant progress on worker safety. By the time the third industrial revolution got started in the 1960s, with automation and computerisation, the PPE landscape had changed considerably.
Today, we are undergoing a fourth industrial revolution, one driven by connectivity and big data. The biggest difference between the factories of today and those of tomorrow is not what’s inside them, but what’s between them: real-time information about industrial processes and production from all around the globe. And this opens up new possibilities for how to deal with hazardous environments.
Hazardous environments & worker safety

Although the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has reported a long-term reduction in the number of workplace fatalities since 1981, the number has remained broadly flat in the last decade. A similar trend can be found in the HSE's number of working days lost due to workplace injuries, which also saw a general decline until 2010/11, and has been broadly flat thereafter.
The obvious explanation for these trends is that, as safety standards and PPE have improved, workplace injuries and fatalities have generally declined. However, we may well have reached the point where these numbers can no longer be reduced by passing stricter regulations or requiring more PPE. So long as workers are present in hazardous environments, some level of risk will be present as well.
The obvious solution is to reduce the number of interactions workers have with hazardous environments, and this is where Industry 4.0 comes into play with two technologies in particular: wearables and remote connectivity.
Wearables & remote connectivity

As the cost of IoT sensors has fallen, the capability to extract information from products and equipment has grown at a commensurate rate. This has been coupled with the spread of industrial connectivity, and organisations adopting these technologies have already seen considerable returns. In 2016, GE estimated that its Digital Thread – the connection of data throughout its value stream – generated $700M USD in productivity gains.
In the field or on the factory floor, the ability to leverage this connectivity is the key to bringing experts into hazardous environments remotely. Dario Buccellato, Regional Manager for Europe, America and Africa – Inspection services at DNV GL, offered the following example: “For Oil & Gas, Hazardous Area Classification (HAC) is a major concern, and that’s where we see the advantage of applying remote technologies to inspection: not having people in workshops where there’s cutting and welding or around equipment that’s running at high speeds or temperatures.”
DNV GL has been working with the Onsight augmented reality platform developed by Librestream Technologies to enable its inspectors to visit offshore operations virtually, rather than requiring them to be on-site.
The result is fewer exposure hours, but the catch is that a facility must have a sufficient level of connectivity to make remote collaboration possible. “If you look at the environments involved, they might be a factory and an office,” Buccellato said. “Of course, you have a good connection in the office, but you need it when you go to the workshop as well. Nowadays, many factories are equipped, but there’s still the need for upgrades. Fortunately, digitalisation is one of the first items on everyone’s agenda.”
Users can also compensate for lower levels of connectivity by selecting an augmented reality platform that can operate in such conditions. Some remote expert solutions are designed to maintain functionality at connection speeds of less than 100kbps. It’s an important feature in many industrial use cases, especially those in remote locations. 
Beyond safety with remote collaboration

While the opportunity to reduce the total number of exposure hours is perhaps the most obvious advantage of using wearables for remote collaboration, there are several ancillary benefits to doing so as well. For example, remote collaboration can significantly accelerate the time it takes for inspections and verifications on offshore assets. BW OFFSHORE recently announced that it will be deploying the Onsight Connected augmented reality platform for just this reason on the Floating Production Storage and Offloading (FPSO) vessel, BW CATCHER.
“We have surveyors in Oslo that sometimes have to travel almost two days to reach a vessel in West Africa,” said Gabriel de Moraes, Technical and Maintenance Coordinator, BW OFFSHORE, who is coordinating the Onsight augmented reality platform deployment.
“Depending on flight schedules, the surveyor may need to stay onboard for a few days, even though their scope onboard may take just a couple of hours.”
Buccellato pointed to two related benefits of remote collaboration. “There’s also the environmental impact,” he said. “Not having people flying and travelling means you don’t just reduce the cost of travel, but the carbon footprint as well. Plus, we can have an inspector who’s available for eight hours, instead of having someone traveling for six and working for two, so you can manage your resources in a different way.” This fits well with the trend towards as-a-service (aaS) models, which brings with it increased expectations regarding customer support and expert availability.
Finally, remote collaboration enabled via wearables and augmented reality provides a new avenue of response to the impending skills gap in manufacturing. The now infamous study from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute projecting 2.4 million unfilled positions in manufacturing over the next decade has raised pressing questions about how to respond. Wearables present a potential technological solution to this problem, enabling expert support for connected workers, providing digital instructions, and even enhancing their perception with thermal imaging.
Each industrial revolution has brought new opportunities to enhance worker safety, from machine guarding and respirators to hearing and eye protection. The fourth industrial revolution brings the potential to reduce exposure hours in a way never before possible, with wearables as the next generation of personal protective equipment.
About the author

Ian Wright is a philosopher-turned-writer, with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in philosophy. Ian was Managing Editor at engineering.com and is now a freelance writer covering topics within digital transformation, such as augmented reality.


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