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Enterprise Wearables: Same Applications, Different Environments

Written BY

Emily Friedman

September 9, 2016

The applications (for wearables) are essentially the same across industries; it’s the environment that changes.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The value of wearable technology for enterprise lies in arming the right person with the right information at the right time in a hands-free manner. The person or employee, the type of information, the timing/location, the wearable itself will differ from business case to business case, but every single application of wearable tech in the workplace – no matter the industry – comes down to that right person/right info/right time/right device.

And so it makes sense that we are seeing wearables being applied in similar ways and for similar purposes in different industries. Wearables are being used to achieve the same goals and to address pain points common to many businesses in diverse job settings; to the point where we can start identifying broad application areas (see our series classifying the applications for WT in enterprise) and group use cases from different sectors by more specific kinds of applications.

The various testimonials given at EWTS 2016 confirm this big picture: After hearing all the presenters and panelists, it became clear that the applications for wearables are essentially the same across industries; it’s the context that changes. In other words, the environment differs from use case to use case – each workplace or job setting is unique – but the applications are fairly consistent. For instance, wearables are being employed to keep workers safe on construction sites, in mines, at shipyards, in disaster relief areas, and on the tarmac. The application is workplace safety (or employee safety, or whatever you want to call it,) though more than one industry is exploring the potential for wearables to keep workers safe.

As someone who observes, analyzes and predicts upon the enterprise wearables space, J.P. Gownder of Forrester Research picked up on this “universal applications” theme (or phenomenon if you will) in his keynote on Day 2 of EWTS. J.P. said that enterprises can complete numerous tasks with wearables. He didn’t specify which enterprises or which industries but rather described two ways that enterprise wearables “operate” in the real world. These two “employment models” are B2E, or business-to-employee, in which a company deploys wearable technology to make employees more productive; and B2B2C, in which an organization “purchases, owns or manages” the devices “for explicit use by or with customers who could be consumers, as well.” So, for example, a logistics company giving smart glasses to warehouse workers to enable vision picking would be B2E. A utilities company sending new technicians out into the field with smart glasses so that more experienced workers can guide them through a job remotely, that would also be B2E. An example of B2B2C would be the case study presented by HPE‘s Garry Orsolini: Hewlett Packard now offers to ship a pair of smart glasses with every large-scale industrial printer it sells, so that enterprise customers can instantly connect and show a problem to HP support via the HPE MyRoom solution (learn more by reading this free white paper). An automobile dealership equipped with Augmented or Virtual Reality headsets that car buyers can use to virtually test drive and customize vehicle models would also fall under B2B2C.

B2E and B2B2C are not specific applications; they’re models for how wearables are deployed by an enterprise, referring to who actually owns and uses the devices. These are terms that J.P. came up with to begin making sense of the world of enterprise wearable tech, and his classification system is telling of the fact that breaking this all down by industry doesn’t accurately reflect the space. The reality of enterprise wearables is that their usefulness crosses industry borders.

J.P. Gownder: “Smart glasses will be in use by 14.4 million workers in the U.S. by 2025. That’s 8% of the U.S. workforce.”

Speaking about smart glasses in particular, J.P. again corroborated our observation, predicting that smart glasses will shape how workers do many different jobs. “How you should think about this is not about the numbers but about the opportunity. What kinds of workers will use smart glasses?” The comprehensive list of job titles he mentioned included repairers, operators, technicians, setters, tenders, installers, specialists, and architects–jobs that can be found in multiple industries. Since smart glasses have several key capabilities or features that make then useful for enterprises, the applications for these devices (ex. hands-free documentation, remote visual guidance) will emerge in many industries, many organizations, many different jobs.

And J.P. was not alone in catching onto this theme; end users themselves remarked upon – were even surprised to notice – the similarities among their industries and individual wearable journeys. After speaking with fellow conference-goers, NASA’s Cory Simon said that he was “very happy to [see that] our problems are very similar.”

“We [at NASA] see wearable technology as an enabler for a wide range of applications consistent with the conversations taking place here today, though we have a unique environment. So, the environment issues are unique but the applications are similar…There’s a spot for all the applications discussed here today in human space flight.”

Mubarak Choudry of Shell admitted that “some of the use cases are similar across industries,” pointing to remote collaboration with SMEs (remote assist), on-the-job learning, and training as examples; while Peggy Gulick of AGCO recognized that “there are common pain points among all our companies,” citing safety and quality as two pretty universal challenges. And Dr. Paul Szotek of IU Health, speaking on behalf of the medical community, explained to the audience that medicine isn’t all that different from other enterprises: “We all have supply chains, even doctors and hospitals. When I’m in surgery requesting a suture, that’s a supply chain issue. Pretty much every area you are all working in can [also] apply to medicine.”

So what are some of the applications appearing across the industry spectrum? Well, as mentioned, safety is a big one. Zac Penix of the AES corporation told us that his organization is primarily interested in using wearables to keep people safe in the field. Cory mentioned a “wealth of applications to enhance astronauts’ safety,” along with their “autonomy, research capacity, efficiency [task performance], and comfort” in space. Dr. Kathleen Deloughery of the Department of Homeland Security spoke about “making sure that first responders are safe and effective. The goal is to make sure that [they] are connected, protected, and fully aware.” Both she and Cory (and also Brian Laughlin of Boeing) brought up physiological and environmental monitoring via wearables as a means of improving workers’ situational awareness and safety. That’s the utilities, aerospace, and emergency services industries right there.

Training is another frequently cited application. In talking about his initial experience with Microsoft’s HoloLens, Trever Ehrlich of Kenco Innovation Labs recollected that he was able to come up with about 20 use cases for the mixed reality headset right off the bat, including quickly training new or temporary employees “so they can jump right in and start working.”

One reason that using wearables for training is appealing to so many enterprises has to do with the impending skilled labor crunch—one of those common problems or pain points to which Cory and Peggy referred. Brian Laughlin, Boeing: “Over half of our employee population will be eligible for retirement soon, so we’re going to have a huge exodus. How do we train new engineers, new mechanics effectively, [and] get them up to speed right away?” And it’s not just in aerospace: Speakers from the construction, energy, and logistics industries talked about training via wearable technology as a solution to the labor shortage threatening them all:

Aleksandar Vukojevic, Duke Energy: “The average tenure of a worker is 28 years. Close to 50% of our people [will be able to] retire in the next 5-10 years. A lot of what we do is experience-based, so a lot of knowledge is going to be leaving through the door. How can new technology help?”
Taylor Cupp and Michal Wojtak, Mortenson Construction: “As an industry…we’re doing a poor job of succession planning. We’re well equipped to support our projects [with execs and managers;] it’s the field labor we’re lacking. We’re not bringing [enough] new people in to support the core of our business, which is building buildings.”

In addition to using wearable tech for training new workers, Taylor and Michal spoke to the technology’s potential to attract trade and craft workers of a younger generation. George Bowser of DHL talked about a “paradigm shift” brought on by smart glasses, as a new user now has the potential to be “very effective to start with.” Building upon some of this commentary, Chris Croteau of Intel described a “reversal of workforce management” with the coming millennial workforce: “Where we used to put our most skilled workers all the way out on the front end and give them the most challenging problems [or tasks], this technology allows us to flip that and [place] our newest workers at the front.” See, using wearables for training is not all VR simulations and providing step-by-step instructions in a worker’s heads-up-display so that he can perform a task he’s never done before and learn while doing. Remote assistance – another common application – lends itself to new user training, as well.

Remote assistance (or remote assist/support/guidance/collaboration) is perhaps the most commonly pursued application for wearables in the enterprise today. Cory Simon phrased it as providing astronauts with “access to experts in real time.” In addition, a few interesting applications were raised at the June event, applications that are not as “popular” as remote guidance but that are certainly relevant to multiple industries and organizations. One such application was using wearables as a differentiator for your business. George Bowser was the first one to really speak to this idea when he said:

“This technology has obvious applications in the distribution environment…even just in the supply chain. We hope we can sell this service—if our labor cost for picking is 10% less than everyone else’s, then that’s a real differentiator [for DHL]. Yes, we want to sell it and implement it and gain competitive advantage, but we also want to build a brand with these technologies.”

Safety, training, remote assist—these are just the tip of the iceberg. Though enterprises all have unique environments and requirements, again, a lot of their problems are the same, and there are aspects of a business that many organizations share. Like Dr. Szotek said, “we all have supply chains.” Employees in all industries need to stay safe, need to access work instructions to do their jobs, need to quickly learn to perform new tasks. How many organizations are still relying upon paper-based processes? How many place a premium on accuracy, worker safety, cutting labor costs? How many have a need to improve remote support for employees in the field? How many desire better training methods to meet a labor shortage or knowledge gap? How many want to use wearables for documentation, communication, inspection purposes? You get the picture.

And it’s not just that the environment changes from industry to industry (while the applications remain the same); within a single organization the job environment can change on a regular, even daily, basis. Think of the BMW and AGCO use cases that were presented at EWTS ’16 (view session videos): In each plant, a different vehicle model (or tractor in AGCO’s case) came down the assembly line every 90 seconds. Likewise, a construction job site is always changing: From project to project, there is new documentation, new plans; and from day to day on any one project, the building is always progressing, always in a different state of completion, with workers relying on changing sets of information. How many organizations have to deal with this kind of variability? The answer is, of course, many; and common problems or pain points breed common applications.

*All quotes are transcribed from the sessions and presentations given at EWTS, June 16-17, 2016 in Atlanta, GA, and therefore may not be exact.

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