Clothed in Technology: The wearables all Utilities should be exploring

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It all starts with a look

Pop quiz hot shot! What was the first ever piece of wearable technology?

If you answered anything other than spectacles, then I’m sorry but you were wrong. That’s right the first ever wearable was reportedly invented in Italy around the year 1290 and I wonder if you could go back 729 years and show them what we have now, how long would it be before you found yourself chased through the streets accused of sorcery?

When you think of everything we have in this day and age, it’s impossible not to be amazed at the potential. We have connected eyewear, watches, rings and headgear. The rise in the so-called Internet of Things (IoT) has presented many industries with an as-yet untapped well of potential when it comes to embracing the concept of the connected worker. That said, there’s only one industry I’m qualified to tell you about and that’s Energy/Utilities.

Challenging environments

It seems to me that Utilities is an industry which could benefit massively from wider adoption of wearable technology. A lot of the behind the scenes work happens underground, at height or at sea, all of which are environments where things can (and do) go wrong. In an industry that has typically been slow to evolve when it comes to technology, you could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the more technological health and safety products available to workers would be lacking.

From experience, I can tell you that the safety of their workers is of paramount importance to all the utility/energy companies I’ve worked with. The challenge is to always be finding ways in which you can keep your team members even safer, especially when the work they do takes place in tricky environments.

This is where some of the emerging innovations in wearable technology can be extremely valuable. Consider a scenario in which a member of your team is carrying out routine maintenance on a network of underground pipes, common sense would dictate that they should never be underground without one or more team members with them in case something goes wrong. But what if something were to happen where all team members were potentially incapacitated?

Worker wellbeing

Using wearable technology, a simple wristband could be given to the team members which would monitor not only their vital signs but also movement data. Linking these to the existing back office system, a rule could be created where if each member of the team didn’t reach their expected half hourly movement data, an audio cue would be sent to them asking to check-in with the office. If no answer was received they could then be located with GPS and another team sent to check on them.

Another example is in the case of teams working at height. It’s never preferable but sometimes circumstances will dictate that someone will be working alone and a fall takes place. Man down alarms are devices that detect falls or impact and send a man down alert to an external monitor.

There are a number of man down alarm options available on the market today, from mobile apps to wearable technology. Mostwork through the use of an accelerometer or man down sensor that detects a change in position, a lack of movement or a sudden impact.

Sharing skills from distance

Health and safety isn’t the only way in which wearable technology can be used to benefit those working in the utilities. The transfer and sharing of knowledge, skills and expertise is another fantastic reason to include a review of available wearable technology into your digital transformation efforts. One of my favourite things about the industry is the longevity of the workforce and it’s not uncommon to meet people who have 30+ years of experience whether that be out in the field or back in the office. It’s absolutely imperative that this knowledge be documented and shared with the new generation entering the workforce otherwise we risk a huge gap in knowledge and skills.

In working with some switched on companies who are keen to combat this, I’ve been exploring what technologies can be implemented to facilitate the sharing of knowledge and have found a couple of solutions.

A more simplistic option is to capitalise on the proliferation of portable devices that one sees in the market today. Whether over WIFI, 4G or the incoming 5G wireless communications are set to improve and with the existing capabilities for two-way video calling, it’s no leap at all to imagine a situation in which the younger, more able-bodied engineer call the experienced, older engineer for advice while performing tasks that are perhaps more physically exerting.

Life after work

Another more technological option would be the incorporation of a connected hardhat that also provided an AR optimised HUD. This tool would facilitate the giving of over-the-shoulder advice whether from someone at another site or back at the office in a safe and efficient way. What I like about this particular solution is how it offers older workers the opportunity for a “soft retirement” in which they can still participate in the job they love but perhaps over reduced hours and from the comfort of their own homes.

Much more to consider

It’s easy to think of wearables as a fad piece of technology that don’t offer any value other than counting steps but that’s only for people who don’t know about the plethora of options available.

In my day to day I’m seeing more and more utilities asking about the benefits of wearables to their workforce. The potential of the technology in the sector is huge and this article only really scratches the surface of how wearables might be deployed.

08 Apr
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