Realise the Value of the Connected Workforce

As companies embark on their digitalisation journey, they want to optimise processes, minimise downtime and more effectively leverage equipment and teams to remain competitive as costs continue to rise. But many are doing so with a reduced workforce and they are battling to retain existing expertise while also attracting new workers with the digital skillsets they now need. 

One aspect of industry digitalisation they should consider is the connected workforce. The connected workforce is one that is digitally linked into the company’s IT and operational technology (OT) ecosystems allowing them to seamlessly interact with machines and colleagues to access the information they need when they need it. By enabling a connected workforce, companies can enhance safety, boost productivity, augment and accelerate training and empower workers, equipping them with tools they need to successfully manage their tasks, to aid talent retention, and attract new recruits.  

Shaping the Connected Workforce

Geo-positioning of workers and assets, for example, will allow teams to locate mislaid equipment in the maze of tunnels across a mine to reduce downtime or used to enhance safety and locate colleagues quickly during an emergency at a vast chemical processing plant or port terminal.

Predictive maintenance can be implemented, and maintenance workers’ tasks streamlined with access to OT data at their fingertips. For example, using readings from equipment health data, anything that falls outside of an acceptable range can prompt alerts to the appropriate maintenance workers’ devices. By scanning a QR code on the equipment workers can access all relevant OT information and using VR data overlaid to the equipment and activated through their device, can be guided to areas that need attention.  Then if they need further assistance they can access step-by-step guides, process data, or interact with experts wherever they are, sharing video and OT data to resolve issues promptly to reduce downtime and impact on productivity. These capabilities will benefit both experienced workers and serve to assist the training of new team members. 

Planned downtime can be scheduled more appropriately by leveraging equipment health data as well as that from vendors and logistics companies on the availability and shipping of new equipment parts. Training can also be augmented using VR to simulate unplanned events and keep teams safe while ensuring they are better prepared. 

How companies implement their connected workforce will depend on the type of industry they are in as well as their challenges and business goals. but it will require them to be equipped with the most appropriate devices for the work they do. These could be in the form of ruggedized smartphones and tablets, designed to work in extreme temperatures and harsh environments. Wearable technology such as connected glasses, cameras and remote speaker microphones with push-to-talk capabilities supports hands-free communication. PPE such as helmets with integrated headsets can also allow workers to communicate safely in a hands-free way, for example at a nacelle on an offshore wind farm or in a noisy factory or mine.

Requirements for the connected workforce

As companies begin their digital transformation and deploy the connected workforce, they must implement technology that allows them to seamlessly evolve, benefitting from:

  • Pervasive wireless connectivity such as that delivered by 4.9G/LTE and 5G private wireless networks. This is needed to reliable, and cost effectively support the connection of huge number of assets and people wherever they are through workers’ devices, Industrial IoT (IIoT) sensors, legacy and new equipment and more. 
  • Seamless integration with existing networks, including Wi-Fi to support IT and other non-mission-critical services, as well as exiting push-to-talk land mobile radio-based networks such as TETRA and P25.
  • An array of compelling industry 4.0 and digitalisation applications that allow them to achieve their goals ranging from workers’ messaging communication solution, worker assistance, etc.
  • A single connected worker platform that delivers these capabilities, with the ability to scale and adapt as needs evolve.

All of this must be supported by Industrial on-prem edge computing. This move away from the public cloud to on-premises edge processing is vital in allowing companies to retain OT data sovereignty and security. It also provides better user experience by removing the delay that occurs when data is processed externally, meaning companies can support the real-time requirements of mission-critical use cases such as autonomous robots and predictive maintenance. The public cloud can then be leveraged for IT services and other non-critical use cases. 

The connected worker in real-world deployments

Companies are already seeing benefits from the connected workforce. Nippon Steel, for example, is using a private LTE network across its manufacturing facility to link sensors, smartphones and cameras for remote monitoring and support. This allows it to improve workforce safety and minimize the impact downtime has on productivity. By implementing a 5G private wireless network, Lufthansa Technik can deliver the high-quality video streams and crystal-clear images required for virtual customer equipment inspections. This wasn’t possible using Wi-Fi as the metal equipment across the hangar impeded the signals and disrupted the service. Bosch is another company using 5G private wireless at its Stuttgart-Feuerbach factory in Germany to enable industrial automation, including an autonomous transport system, to deliver materials exactly where and when they are needed.

The case for the connected worker

Results from an ABI Research-led study unveiled this year show that companies are at different stages of their digitalisation journeys. Electronics and appliance manufacturers, for example, are leading the way in Industry 4.0/digitalisation technology investments and use case deployments while manufacturers of heavy equipment can gain by closely aligning their IT and OT environments. Within their digital transformation, the case for the connected workforce is clear. Giving workers access to pervasive high-quality voice, video and OT data where and when they need it, and in a format that makes sense to them will dramatically enhance their capabilities. enhance their capabilities. 

As companies think about the connected workforce, they should consider implementing new technologies to enable their overall digital transformation. It is critical that their teams are integrated into the IT and OT environment, and this must be supported by robust, pervasive networks such as 4G/LTE and 5G wireless, an on-premises cloud using industrial edge computing, ruggedised devices and an ecosystem of compelling applications. Only then can they benefit from a truly connected workforce that is better protected and more productive.

Paul is the Manufacturing Marketing Manager at Nokia

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