Wearables have been around since the 1960s, when they were used by Bell helicopter to enable military helicopter pilots to land at night in rough terrain. In the 1990s, Boeing took a major step, by using heads-up displays to ensure that pilots did not have to look down to see critical dashboard information mid-flight. Boeing later used wearables to provide instructions to wire-assembly engineers, eliminating the need for paper manuals.
Recently, wearables have gained immense popularity, with the advance of fitness-monitoring
devices. Today wearables are not just limited to wrist-worn devices. Various form factors have also emerged that include smart fabric, smart helmets, smart gloves, smart implants etc.
It is now time for businesses to look at adopting workplace wearables. Most workplaces, especially industrial environments, will be impacted by the use of wearables. They have been shown to enhance employee productivity. For example, workers standing at a machine are arguably more in need of real-time data than a person exercising in a gym or working in a traditional office setting. Wearables provide this real-time data, which is fed to an operator precisely when the workers need it, thus leading to improved productivity.
The initial wave of devices such as Google Glass, Vuzix and Epson’s augmented reality (AR) glasses caught attention and triggered innovation in the industrial space. However, many of the devices have had limitations when it came to practical usage in the field. New devices such as the Daqri helmet are trying to address the practical problems of wearables in industrial environments.
What makes workplace wearables useful is the fact that they possess the functionality that workers need, without distracting them from their main job. For example, when enhanced with high-tech features, safety glass worn on the floor or in the office can support task execution through a checklist of activities, audio and video collaboration with subject-matter experts, automation of simple, discrete tasks such as barcode-scanning in a warehouse, and workflow automation, such as identifying defective parts, feeding updated inventory into the ERP system etc.
Wearables can be used to automate simple tasks to aid forklift operators, such as accessing routing information to navigate through a warehouse without having to scan the barcodes. Devices powered by Google Glass can help them view asset transfer instructions on the wearable’s heads-up display. Operators can scan barcodes on assets and shelves without having to leave the forklift, saving human effort and improving operational efficiency. They can update the asset-transfer information using the wearable app; the information is made available in real-time to the warehouse operations manager.
This functionality is finding use in the retail domain as well. For instance, British grocery chain Tesco has equipped its workers with armbands to automatically track transported goods along nearly 90 aisles of shelves. The armbands have eliminated the need for workers to mark clipboards or provide managers with an estimated completion time. This has helped reduce the effort required to run the store.
Positives of workplace wearables aside, an important factor for an organisation to consider while contemplating the introduction of these devices, would be privacy issues. For example, Tesco’s use of employee armbands to improve operational efficiency led to numerous complaints by workers about the company using the information generated by these devices to monitor their activities, breaks etc.
Organisations may find it difficult to adopt workplace wearables; but a well-crafted strategy would help streamline the process. Here’s a four-step approach:
Rethink: Businesses must reconsider their processes and how their businesses’ effectiveness will improve if workers have the information they need at the very moment that they need it
Pilot: Organisations should pilot and evaluate various wearable devices and platforms, by partnering with wearables manufacturers as well as software solution and service providers, and in this way, identify early adopters within the organisation
Redesign: It is imperative for companies to choose the right wearable for their employees, by designing wearable apps from the ground up that provide contextual and timely information
Adopt and engage: Businesses should interact with the workforce, and identify and alleviate employee concerns by instilling trust in the process change.
By adopting these steps, enterprises can increase employee productivity, while also increasing workplace security. Wearables are poised to play a crucial role in the workplace, including in eliminating unnecessary tedium.
Venkataraman Krishnan is VP & venture leader, Emerging Business Accelerator, Cognizant.
Rajesh Rajagopalan, associate director, Emerging Business Accelerator, Cognizant, is the co-contributor to this article.