When we think of wearable technology, we tend to think of it in terms of its benefit to the consumer. Wearable payment technology, for example, makes it easier, quicker and much less cumbersome for consumers to pay for goods, and it’s through this convenience that brands reap their rewards: greater consumer convenience means greater revenue. But how about more direct benefits? Can wearable technology make an impact on the actual manufacture of goods, and can that be beneficial for businesses?
The Return of Google Glass
The question has been around for a while but come back again thanks to the return of Google Glass. This smart eyewear technology was originally released for consumers in 2014, but privacy concerns and its cumbersome nature meant it failed to take off. It was something of a humbling for Google, admits Astro Teller, who runs the division that produces Glass. “When we originally built Glass, the work we did on the technology front was very strong,” he told Wired. “Where we got a little off track was trying to jump all the way to the consumer applications. We got more than a little off track.”
Following this disappointment, Google went back to the drawing board and decided that while Glass wouldn’t land with consumers, it still had a worthwhile role to play for businesses. In this environment, the technology could be used to make the manufacturing process smoother, safer and much more efficient. Suddenly, this struggling product had new life and purpose, and so in July 2017, it was relaunched as Glass Enterprise Edition, a manufacturing aid that could put previous set-backs in the past and step into a new and different future with confidence.
Indeed, by the time the relaunch arrived, Glass had already been used by the likes of GE Aviation and DHL with positive results, and Google hopes there’ll be many more success stories in years to come. “Workers in many fields, like manufacturing, logistics, field services, and healthcare find it useful to consult a wearable device for information and other resources while their hands are busy,” wrote project lead Jay Kothari. “That’s why we’ve spent the last two years working closely with a network of more than 30 expert partners to build customised software and business solutions for Glass for people in these fields.”
The Road to Smart Glasses
The road to this new acceptance of smart glasses began a couple of years ago. Back in 2015, Volkswagen became an early adopter of the technology when it started using it at its main plant in Wolfsburg. Wearing the glasses was optional, but there were plenty who did opt-in and they were given comprehensive training sessions beforehand to help them get to grips with the technology. “Digitalization is becoming increasingly important in production,” said Head of Plant Logistics Reinhard de Vries. “The 3D smart glasses take cooperation between humans and systems to a new level.” The technology was used for an initial three-month test period, and after proving successful, it was kept on.
The success should come as no surprise. The production of something as complex as a car opens up a multitude of opportunities for human error that could ultimately prove fatal. By using wearable technology, automotive companies are helping reduce that possibility, making their process much safer and much more efficient. As Peggy Gulick, Director of Business Process Improvement at Agricultural machine/vehicle producers AGCO said: “Employees are now working smarter, faster and safer because they have the information they need right in their line of sight.”
Speaking to Wired, Gulick added that while the process for deciding to use Glass was a complicated one, it delivered significant (and unbelievable results) when in place. “We weren’t going to risk our employees having headaches and other issues,” she said. “[But] we knew the value of wearable technology when we first put it on the floor. In our first test in quality, our numbers were so high in the value it was adding that we actually retested and retested and retested. Some of the numbers we couldn’t even publish because the leadership said they looked way too high.”
Wearable technology advances for manufacturers don’t just have to come in the form of hardware. Software is also witnessing several key advancements, with Skylight by Upskill (previously APX Labs) proving particularly helpful. As the website notes, Skylight is “an industrial AR software platform for smart glasses that connects hands-on workers to do their jobs with greater efficiency and fewer errors… [it can] be configured and deployed for multiple use cases across your business, from the factory floor to the warehouse.” A video of Skylight in action can be seen below.
However, for all the wonders of wearable technologies, and the software that’s used in them, there’s little threat that automation will entirely remove human workers from the manufacturing equation. “I think a lot of people kind of look at it with fear,” said Upskill’s Jeff Jenkins. “They see automation and robots and technology and taking jobs and replacing the human element. We don’t see it like that at all.” He added: “What we’re finding with a lot of our customers is that the automation can’t actually match it when you have human automation equipped with the same powers.”
The return of Google Glass, and the growing prominence of wearable technology in manufacturing, bodes well – especially for industries like the automotive sector. Human error is always a significant threat to safety and efficiency in manufacturing, and by using wearable technology, companies can lower that threat significantly. It remains to be seen where smart glasses like Google Glass will go next, but whether or not it strikes gold in the consumer market is somewhat irrelevant. The manufacturing sector is significant enough to promise it a rewarding future.
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