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The Future of Connected Worker Technology and Its Impact on Industrial Training

Nov. 21, 2023
A new paradigm of work driven by technology is reshaping industrial skills and training efforts in profound ways.

The industrial landscape is undergoing a transformation. Gone are the days of static assembly lines and isolated tasks. Today's factories and facilities are dynamic environments where automation, data analysis and interconnected devices play crucial roles.

A connected worker uses technology to enhance their capabilities and seamlessly integrate their actions with digital industrial systems. Connected worker technology is reshaping industrial training in profound ways. This new paradigm is crucial in enabling workers to operate with increased efficiency and intelligence. 

The Emergence of the Connected Worker

Industrial working environments of the past were marked by the manual execution of tasks and the segmented operation of machinery. The flow of information was linear and slow, with improvements and innovations being implemented at a glacial pace compared to today’s standards. Such settings required the physical presence and undivided attention of workers, often at the expense of efficiency and safety.

The paradigm shift towards connected worker technology has brought a fusion of wearables, augmented reality (AR) and the Internet of Things (IoT) into the industrial workflow. This trio of technologies is reshaping the fabric of industrial environments, making them more responsive and interconnected.

Key Features of Connected Worker Technology

Wearables are now integral to the connected worker’s gear, tracking health metrics and environmental conditions. They offer a dual benefit: safeguarding the worker while also collecting valuable data to inform safety practices and operational efficiency. 

READ MORE: 2023 Industry Tech & Trends – Supporting an Evolving Workforce

AR is a transformative force providing workers with real-time visualizations that offer guidance and clarity on complex tasks. This technology has turned complex schematics and manuals into interactive 3D models that can be superimposed onto the real work environment. As a result, workers can perform intricate procedures with greater precision and confidence.

IoT's prowess in data collection and real-time communication has turned each device into a beacon of insights, with sensors and actuators feeding a constant stream of information into the industrial network. IoT has effectively created a digital nervous system that spans the entirety of industrial operations.

Impact on Industrial Training

The leap from traditional classroom training to digital methodologies is a seismic shift in industrial education. Traditional methods often relied on theoretical knowledge and simulated environments, whereas digital approaches provide interactive, hands-on experiences that mirror actual workplace scenarios—and a more effective transfer of knowledge.

The Role of Immersive Technologies in Training

Immersive technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and AR have taken center stage in training, propelling workers into environments that are both controllable and experientially rich. With VR, employees can navigate through life-like simulations that would be too dangerous or expensive to recreate in real life. AR overlays essential information onto the real work setting. 

Interactive learning modules have revolutionized on-the-job training, facilitating an active learning process that is both personalized and engaging. These modules, often accessible via tablets or smart glasses, allow workers to learn by doing, which is instrumental in retaining complex procedures and protocols. The interactivity also ensures a more inclusive and effective learning environment.

Advantages of Digital Training Methods

Digital training methods have been proven to enhance engagement and significantly boost the retention of information among workers. Workers are transformed from passive recipients of information into active participants in their learning. Such engagement is crucial for translating training into practical, on-the-floor skills.

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One of the most significant advantages of digital training is the ability to provide real-time feedback and adapt learning paths according to individual performance. Workers can immediately correct their actions based on the system’s feedback, which accelerates the learning process and personalizes the experience to meet each worker’s needs. This makes training tailored endeavor rather than a one-size-fits-all model.

Enhancing Safety and Efficiency

Connected worker technology has elevated safety protocols from being reactive to proactive, with predictive analytics anticipating potential hazards before they occur. Wearables alert workers to safety risks, and managers can monitor environmental conditions in real time, enabling immediate intervention when necessary. 

Real-time data and collaboration have yielded impactful and measurable efficiency gains. For instance, connected devices enable the immediate adjustment of machine settings to optimize performance, while collaborative platforms allow teams to solve problems without the delays of traditional communication methods. These gains and advancements are not limited to speed; they enable workers to make smarter decisions that benefit the entire production line.

Real-Time Collaboration and Decision Making

The capabilities of IoT and AR are the foundation of a new era of teamwork. IoT allows team members to share operational data instantly, while AR can bring a remote expert's guidance directly into a worker’s field of vision. Together, these technologies facilitate a collaborative environment where knowledge and expertise are shared regardless of physical location.

Data analytics is, to put it simply, turning vast amounts of data into actionable insights. Workers and managers alike rely on analytics to understand trends, forecast outcomes and make decisions that align with real-time operational intelligence. This data-driven approach has transformed decision-making from a gut-based to an evidence-based practice.

Technology has been instrumental in bridging the gap between field workers and management, creating a unified vision of operational goals and challenges. With real-time data flow and communication platforms, the insights of those on the production floor can inform managerial decisions. This synergy ensures that decisions are not made in silos but are the result of shared knowledge between all organizational levels.

Challenges and Considerations

One important step towards robust and efficient infrastructure is striking a balance between data collection for operational efficiency and respecting the personal boundaries and data rights of employees. Robust cybersecurity measures and clear policies are non-negotiable to maintain trust and protect against potential breaches.

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Adopting new technologies invariably introduces a learning curve. Training programs must be designed to bring workers up to speed without overwhelming them, and support systems should be in place to aid in the adoption process. Successfully managing this learning curve is crucial for harnessing the full potential of these innovations.

Future Trends and Predictions

The integration of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning with connected worker technologies heralds a future where industrial processes become even more intelligent and adaptive. These advanced algorithms can analyze complex data streams to enhance decision-making and efficiency. As AI continues to evolve, it will undoubtedly become a key feature in a connected worker platform.

The horizon for AR and VR in industrial training is one of boundless potential. As these technologies mature, we can anticipate even more refined simulations and augmented experiences that will further diminish the boundaries between digital and physical realities. The future points towards a seamless integration of our digital tools with the natural environment of the industrial workspace.

The role of humans within industrial settings is transitioning towards more cognitive and analytical functions. Workers are now the strategists and problem-solvers, with their irreplaceable human ingenuity complementing the precision of machines. It is an evolution that underscores the value of human insight, with technology amplifying human potential rather than replacing it.

Retool for Growth

The transformative impact of connected worker technology on industrial training has been revolutionary, offering a new paradigm where efficiency, safety and knowledge-sharing are greatly enhanced.

The future of work suggests a landscape of continuous learning and adaptation, where digital tools become partners in progress and catalysts for an ever-evolving industrial workforce.

Eric Whitley has been a leader in the manufacturing space for more than 30 years. After an extensive career as a reliability and business improvement consultant, Whitley joined L2L, where he currently serves as the Director of Smart Manufacturing. He has written on various manufacturing topics, and is known for leading the Total Productive Maintenance effort at Autoliv ASP or from his involvement in the Management Certification programs at The Ohio State University, where he served as an adjunct faculty member. 

Editor’s Note: Machine Design's WISE (Workers in Science and Engineering) hub compiles our coverage of workplace issues affecting the engineering field, in addition to contributions from equity seeking groups and subject matter experts within various subdisciplines.

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