Using Connected Workers to Transform Your Workplace
In this article
Due to their complex and often hazardous environments, the oil, gas and petrochemical industries have been slow adopters of modern digital technologies. Yet with growing proof of the safety and operational benefits of IoT technologies, seeing tablets, wearables and smart sensors is increasingly common in operational environments.
As these industries continue to embrace new technology, connected worker solutions and benefits are expected to mature even further. Using existing KPIs such as "Safety Incident Rate," "Equipment Downtime," "Training Time" and "Employee Turnover Rate" will demonstrate how these solutions can quickly deliver results and value. Consider safety concerns, for example. The ability to monitor a worker's health and environmental conditions in real time — particularly in areas such as confined spaces — can identify and mitigate potential hazards before they become serious incidents.
As more and more organizations become aware and familiar with the benefits associated with connected workers, the use cases and desire to implement new solutions will continue to grow, mature and evolve. Let's explore how.
A connected worker is a worker whose role is enhanced by digital or "smart" technologies that provide real-time access to information and applications, and that facilitate immersive collaboration. Additionally, these technologies can monitor the health and safety of the worker as well as aid in task optimization and execution. A connected worker interacts with their applications and work environment and performs their tasks more efficiently, safely and productively using digital connectivity to data, people and other resources.
Connected worker technology uses hardware (such as wearables), connectivity (like Wi-Fi or Private Cellular/5G), and software tools to connect frontline workers with teammates at remote locations. Field workers can share what they see with colleagues through the use of images and videos. They can use a remote connection to sync dashboards, access applications and update operational information. Operators can optimize the work done by field workers in real-time to drive operational efficiency and monitor worker safety.
Implementing a connected worker program is like creating a Digital Nervous System for industrial operations. A Digital Nervous System requires receptors (sensors) that generate information about the operations and people, nerves (networks) that move that data around the body (campus) to infrastructure that can apply cognition (information architecture, analytics and applications) that turn that data into insights and action.
We dig into each aspect below.
Receptors are comprised of various field assets and IoT devices serving as receivers for sensing and responding. These devices might include:
- Smart helmets
- Smart glasses
- Location trackers
- Wearable sensors
Managers can see marked improvements in safety with these assets. Workers are provided with real-time information about potential hazards, such as unsafe environmental conditions or equipment malfunctions, and managers can be alerted to workers who are at risk. This can help operators and workers proactively avoid accidents and injuries.
For instance, in a health, safety and environment program, a company can use an integrated safety system using wearables (e.g., smart helmets, safety vests and mobile devices) to detect if a technician has been over-exposed to toxic chemicals, is demonstrating signs of overheating, or is at risk for any number of other health-related risks before it's too late.
Sensors can also be added to existing infrastructure, such as pipelines. Using IoT sensors and drones, companies can better monitor key parameters such as flow, pressure and temperature, as well as visual inspections of pipelines. They then provide the data to field workers to improve work order processing and dispatch operations for repairs.
With tablets and smartphones, workers can develop skills and knowledge at their own pace and based on their individual needs.
Using defined specific KPIs and metrics attached to these receptors, data can be generated about the location of assets, performance of machinery and health risks of individuals, enabling field workers and managers to optimize their output and manage their health and operational risks in real-time. For instance, rather than only measuring serious incidents, they can measure more granular safety performance, such as the number of workplace accidents, near-miss incidents and safety compliance rates. Productivity, like worker output, task completion rates and overall efficiency, can also be easily measured.
When deploying this type of device, it is important to consider factors such as:
- Environmental requirements
- Operating system capabilities
- Types of connectivity supported
- Applications supported
- Form factor (size, weight)
- Integration with existing systems and infrastructure
The nerves are made up of networks that serve as the pathways along which sensors send and receive telemetry and control data. These networks are:
Using these types of networks enhances communications, as workers can be connected to supervisors or colleagues who are a few or hundreds of miles away. Reliable, pervasive connectivity is critical to driving the adoption of, and value from, connected worker investments. Unfortunately, this has presented a significant challenge to industrial operations for decades. Pervasive heavy, metal assets, outdoor environments and/or very high ceilings, and extreme environmental conditions across vast campuses, have historically made establishing the "nerves" capable of supporting these use cases a monumental task and a significant investment. Because these campuses are often in remote areas and/or require greater security than carriers can offer, public carrier services often can't suffice.
Fortunately, advancements in Private Cellular/5G, Wi-Fi and a variety of other technologies make establishing pervasive, reliable and strong connectivity both technically and economically achievable.
Cognition represents the infrastructure that translates data into insight. This starts with information architecture — the storage, integration, and governance supporting the data. Next is the analytics, from basic statistics to predictive AI which translates that data into metrics and other meaningful insights for users. Finally, it's the applications that serve the right insights to the right users at the right time.
Companies can take advantage of analytics in many ways. With better data collection through wearables, managers can identify areas for improvement and optimize processes and workflows. Meanwhile, workers can use real-time data to work more efficiently and make better decisions, increasing productivity and completing tasks faster.
With this data, workers can receive on-demand training and support, helping them quickly adapt to modern technologies and processes. In addition, because supervisors and workers no longer need to be in the same location, more experienced workers can transfer valuable institutional knowledge through wearables to operators in the field. These programs ensure knowledge transfer and that legacy skills aren't lost.
Using modern AI capabilities with vast increases in data types and granularity, digital twins can be used to simulate different scenarios and an industrial process, like a drilling operation. The ability to analyze data in real-time and then provide actionable insights to workers via mobile devices or augmented reality can save time and money. In addition, these simulations can be used in training exercises.
As wearables continue to mature, they can be a game changer for connected workers though value can still be realized with a more limited subset of functionality via laptops, tablets or phones.
The networks, devices and applications that connect workers represent a platform that, once established, can expand in breadth and depth of use. However, justifying the initial investment in time and resources, as well as defining technical requirements, necessitates identifying initial use cases that will deliver meaningful, measurable value to users and the business.
Appropriately setting the stage and developing a connected worker program requires worker engagement and the right technology. Regular comprehensive reviews of existing workplace practices can identify areas where wearable technology can help improve safety, efficiency and productivity.
Selecting the appropriate connected worker technologies will help companies develop a plan for implementation and adoption. Plans should include training employees to use the new devices and integrating the technology into existing workplace processes.
Understanding the common challenges that occur at the outset can help boost ROI much sooner. For example, employee adoption is a frequent opportunity in businesses that launch connected worker programs. Employees may feel skeptical about the benefits of technology or that their privacy is being compromised. Corporate change control can impact the success of these programs.
Once the use cases have been identified, creating a great user experience is paramount — workers are very busy and have been successfully operating for decades. To get adoption, the technology must meaningfully improve the experience while minimizing technical complications. Wearables and sensor equipment must be combined with networks that reliably enable the devices and software solutions designed to manage and analyze the data collected from these devices.
In addition, CTOs should be aware of the upcoming change in data management. Connected worker programs generate large volumes of data that must be collected, managed and analyzed. Infrastructure must be prepared to ensure that there is appropriate oversight of data quality, data architecture and data acquisition.
Human resources managers must be on board to discuss data privacy and security issues. Connected worker programs collect sensitive data about workers, such as their location, health status and work performance in addition to critical asset data regarding performance and operations. Companies must ensure that this type of data is collected and managed securely and complies with relevant privacy regulations.
During this planning stage, ensure a system is in place for storing and analyzing the data collected from connected worker technologies. This may involve developing dashboards and other visualization tools that provide real-time insights into worker performance and safety.
Finally, companies should continuously evaluate the effectiveness of their connected worker technologies and adjust as necessary. Evaluations often include collecting employee feedback and using this information to improve the technology or adjust workplace processes.
Ensuring a successful implementation also depends on making sure that the proper hardware and technologies are utilized. For instance, not every company needs smart glasses and smart helmets, so adding both might be an unnecessary expense and could lead to poor adoption by workers. That is why engaging the business goes hand-in-hand with adding the appropriate connected worker technology.
Begin a technology assessment by reviewing current information architecture, then investing in the necessary infrastructure, developing robust data privacy and security protocols, and providing training and support to employees to ensure their adoption of the new technology.
Many companies face integration concerns with legacy systems that may need to be updated to become compatible with connected worker technologies. Start by assessing how current systems can help or hinder the program's goals. Then, work with a connected worker specialist to determine what upgrades or overhauls need to be made to improve legacy systems.
Be aware that the initial costs associated with implementing a connected worker program can include the cost of purchasing wearables, sensors and other connected devices, as well as the cost of integrating the technology into existing workplace processes.
In the development of a digital nervous system for a connected worker program, it's essential to recognize the significance of each component. The sensors serve as the "receptors," capturing invaluable data from the field. This data then travels through the "network," reminiscent of nerves, to be processed and interpreted. The integration costs might encompass the purchase of wearables, sensors and other connected devices, along with aligning this technology with existing workplace systems. The "cognition" aspect, consisting of analytics applications and information architecture, facilitates the interpretation and meaningful use of this data. When these interconnected elements function harmoniously, many businesses witness a superior ROI, as evidenced by KPIs that underscore the program's worth.
Finally, implementing a connected worker program may require specialized technical expertise unavailable within the company. It is essential to make sure that the right people are appointed to select the suitable technology, integrate it with existing systems, and manage the data generated by the program.
Implementing a successful connected worker program starts with defining goals, selecting appropriate technologies and developing a plan. Once the program is implemented, it's critical to monitor progress so you can make any necessary adjustments.
With the right processes and partners in place, your connected worker program can become instrumental in revitalizing your operations and adapting successfully to current and emerging energy trends.