How wearable tech is about to transform utilities

Those working in the utilities industry will be painfully aware of its pitfalls.

The constant quest to improve safety, for example, or the never-ending battle against inefficiency in an increasingly complex and regulated sector.

Whether you can overcome those challenges depends on a number of factors: effective management. The right processes. Factors beyond anyone’s control like the political landscape or natural disasters.

But part of solving these issues comes down to technology.

Wearable IoT tech – coupled with clever algorithms – has the potential to transform the utilities industry and create huge amounts of value at relatively little financial cost.

The trend for wearables started – as is often the case – with consumers. But more recently the corporate world has begun to see the value this tech can bring to an enterprise.

Here’s how wearables and IoT could make you more competitive as a utilities organisation…

Improving safety

Every business has a responsibility to prevent its staff coming to harm.

But while protecting people in a static workplace is relatively straightforward, doing so in a working environment that requires multiple people out in the field at any number of locations is considerably more complex.

There are a few ways wearables can help overcome that complexity:

  • Better monitoring of people out in the field
  • Real-time incident reporting
  • Analytical insight into areas of risk and environmental factors
  • Greater predictability over events

If you have an engineer working out in the field, for example, historically you would only know their status and location if they provide that information to you.

But that system contains holes – even if the engineer calls you every 30 minutes that’s still a 29-minute window in which you can’t see what’s happening. That’s a long time for someone to wait in the event of an incident.

Today, however, the power of wearable tech and IoT means you don’t have to wait for an engineer to tell you they’re OK. You can receive all of that information in real time.

JX Nippon has already employed wearable tech in this way. The company provides engineers with location badges that detect when the wearer has fallen from a pylon. The vital band device has a range of sensors that tell operators when and where someone has fallen as it happens, and provide insight like heat stress to indicate the risk to an engineer.

Let’s be clear: this isn’t about ‘keeping tabs’ on your workers – that is a side-issue of remote working that we’re not dealing with here. No, this is simply about trying to stop an incident happening based on the level of risk, and also measuring an event accurately and responding to it effectively.

Increasing efficiency

When people talk about automation they often do so in the context of job losses, i.e. humans being replaced by technology.

But in the case of increasing efficiency in the utilities sector, we’re talking not about replacing people or old technology but rather supporting them through new digital tools.

I discussed the difference between receiving a check-in call from an engineer every half an hour and having a constant stream of that information in real time. That in itself is increasing the efficiency with which you can learn what’s happening to engineers in the field, ultimately improving safety levels.

But efficiency is also about improving processes, and wearable tech has the power to do this in ways previously unimaginable.

On a basic level, having access to real-time data helps you send the right people to do the right jobs based on that information.

But one of the most powerful uses for wearables is remote support and real-time training. A head-mounted display, for example, where a specialist engineer can support those engineers on-site through over-the-shoulder support, or where an experienced engineer can see what a more junior colleague is doing and give them instructions without physically needing to be there.

Or you can take it one step further and look at augmented reality (AR) overlays, where a piece of technology comes alive with annotations when viewed through an head-mounted display or tablet, providing the engineer with information and instructions on how to fix the problem. All in real time.

One company using AR in this way with the help of Fujitsu is Metawater. The company lets inexperienced engineers use tablets to spot problems easily by comparing what they’re seeing with stored images of ‘normal’ operations.

Not an example of wearable technology as such, but the principle could easily be applied to a wearable headset like Google Glass as opposed to a tablet.

All of this massively reduces the time it takes an engineer to research a solution, and increases the chances of things being fixed first time. It also means you can remove much of the paperwork that tends to slow processes down.

Evolution – not revolution

The things I’ve talked about in this article aren’t coming in future – they’re already here. And as wearables continue to gain uptake in the consumer world we’ll see much more of that innovation making its way into enterprise.

We won’t so much see a wearables revolution as an evolution – progress defined by the needs and requirements of specific industries, which in utilities will likely be the safety and efficiency issues I mentioned above.

But this technology shouldn’t be a replacement for existing tools. It is simply a way to support and enhance the way you’re already doing things.

That is where the true value of wearable technology lies.

 

James Maynard

James Maynard

Offering Management Director - Global IoT & Innovation at Fujitsu
James Maynard

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