AT this year’s Honeywell Users Group conference in San Antonio,Texas, a panel of experts gathered to discuss the wider impact of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)-enabled connected workers and plants. It was an impassioned discussion in which the panel unanimously agreed that connected technologies offer the potential to achieve a step change for industrial markets akin to Amazon’s transformation of the retail sector. Specifically, real-time contextual information can be applied to plant operations on a level we’ve never seen before, leading to better, faster decisions that can save lives, improve bottom lines and potentially transform business models.
The IIoT is delivering new ways to collect, analyse, and act on a wider range of information. That information can be transformed into operational insights that allow the ‘Things’ in the IIoT – for example, sensors, actuators, devices and machines – to get smarter, more autonomous, and adaptive to changing circumstances.
The same is true for workers, as workers on the plant floor inhabit the same environment as ‘Things’. The IIoT allows workers to be both a source and a destination for insights, helping them to work more proactively and effectively. With relevant information at their disposal, ‘connected’ workers can make better-informed decisions and take more appropriate action, with less reliance on outside assistance or expertise than in the past. And when outside assistance is required, IIoT technology makes that assistance more readily available.
The surge in the development of mobile and wearable technology is fueling the rise of connected workers. Mobile devices are literally transforming workers into intelligent mobile sensor platforms, tracking their movements and progress through planned and unplanned tasks. These devices can also record video and audio from the worker's environment; sense environmental conditions such as the presence of gas, temperature, and vibration; and detect falls and other incidents. Information gathered from workers as they go about their daily tasks can be combined with data from the automation system and other sources to create a complete picture of plant operations, and show the impact on the activities and goals of workers.
Meanwhile, clever new wearable technologies are being embedded with displays and augmented reality applications, delivering guidance, information and insights to workers where and when they need it, boosting their reliability, productivity and safety. The additional information is particularly useful for complex procedures in areas such as installation, operation or maintenance. Additionally, connected wearables such as hard hats and gloves can themselves be monitored to ensure they offer the safest level of protection for workers.
Another benefit of connected technologies is that they reduce skills gaps by providing on-the-job guidance for routine procedures. Learning on-the-job is, after all, generally recognised to be more effective than classroom-based tutorial. Furthermore, these technologies allow supervisors and managers to see what is happening at a site – through video or data, for example. This is an opportunity to provide appropriate guidance when it is needed.
For plant supervisors and managers, connected technologies provide effective route and task planning for current and emerging operational situations, better optimising their workforce. Additionally, the improved communication and collaboration availed by these solutions allows site staff to work more effectively as a team, while the recording and sharing of information related to plant activities and incidents is creating powerful new industrial social networks that facilitate the capture and sharing of knowledge. This emerging sharing culture is giving workers better situational awareness, supporting a better understanding and response to changing conditions in their environment.
The IIoT is not only impacting workers on the plant floor – it’s also being applied in areas such as competency development programs. For example, virtual reality-based training is replacing traditional classroom and book study techniques with hands-on experience, providing faster learning with better retention at lower cost. Meanwhile, control room personnel are benefitting from advanced display technology and visualisation techniques such as augmented and virtual reality, allowing them to process and act on information and insights derived from a wider range of sources. Supervisors and managers are also staying better informed with IIoT-derived apps delivering insights relevant to their responsibilities.
While the IIoT is providing plenty of benefits for industrial companies, connected technologies are only effective if workers put those tools to good use. Their rise can lead to a more reliable, productive and safe workforce – if workers are equipped to act on the information and insights delivered to them. Allowing more informed local decision making can help remove many of the bottlenecks in current work practices and lead to a more responsive and adaptable workforce.
The fervor and zeal of the panelists in San Antonio was entirely justified. In the same way that IIoT makes ‘Things’ smarter, it also making workers smarter. The impact on the industrial sector is only just being felt.