Better Workforce: How Wearable Tech Can Transform the Workplace

Wearables such as exoskeletons, heads-up displays, and hearables are revolutionizing the way we work.

Picture it: Ripley, along with Corporal Hicks, Newt and "artificial person" Bishop have just escaped back to their ship as planet LV-426 blows up. We're just breathing a sigh of relief when who else should emerge from the drop ship's cargo hold but ... the alien queen.

Ripley takes off at a run, then, a door opens to reveal Ripley in the metal exoskeleton we've seen earlier in the movie. And now, she's prepared to take on the alien queen.

Back in 1986, the things that were shown in James Cameron's movie "Aliens" seemed fantastical, today they are commonplace. Wearables, similar to the exoskeleton worn by crewmember Ripley are showing up on assembly lines.

Wearable technologies, such as smartwatches, smartglasses, hearables, and exoskeletons augment workers’ physical and perceptual capabilities.

They amplify workers' physical strength, display detailed information as needed, and alert for hazards.

Exoskeletons

In its Valencia, Spain factory and in two of its U.S. factories, the Ford Motor Company has provided some of its workers with the "EksoVest", an upper body industrial exoskeleton.

RELATED: FORD INTRODUCES FULL BODY EXOSKELETON VESTS TO HELP FIGHT WORKER FATIGUE AND INJURY

The units augment the user's physical endurance rather than their strength, since heavier or bulkier items at the plants are handled by robots or machinery.

In a Ford press release, a 35-year-old employee at the Valencia plant said, "My job can be like a workout at the gym and you really need to be fit to tackle some of the tasks. The exoskeleton suit makes a big difference and at the end of a shift I feel much fresher."

Since 2010, the U.S. military has been testing the Sarcos/Raytheon XOS 2 Exoskeleton. It weighs 68 kg (150 lb) and allows the wearer to lift 90 kg (200 lb) with little or no effort.

Lockheed Martin has come out with the Ekso Bionics/Lockheed Martin HULC (Human Universal Load Carrier), which weighs 24 kg (53 lb) and allows the user to carry up to 91 kg (201 lb) in a backpack.

The unfortunately named Cyberdyne's HAL 5 is the first cyborg-type wearable robot that allows the wearer to lift 10 times as much as they normally could. The HAL 5 was given global safety certification in 2013, and is currently being used in Japanese hospitals.

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In James Cameron's "Terminator" movies, "Cyberdyne Systems" was the company responsible for creating the Terminator, and in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" "HAL" was the name of the mutinous computer.

Heads-up Displays

Heads-up displays (HUDs) are transparent displays of data that don't require the user to look away from their usual viewpoint. HUDs originated in British military aircraft during WWII.

In the 1960s, French test-pilot Gilbert Klopfstein created the first modern HUD, and a standardized system of HUD symbols so that pilots would only have to learn one system and could transition between aircraft.

Klopfstein pioneered HUD technology in military fighter jets and helicopters, with the aim of centralizing critical flight data within the pilot's field of vision.

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RELATED: NAVY ENGINEERS DEVELOP FUTURISTIC HUD FOR DIVING HELMETS

In the 1970s, HUDs were introduced to commercial aviation, and today are used in the Embraer 190, Saab 2000, Boeing 727, Boeing 737-300, 400, 500 and Boeing 737 New Generation Aircraft (737-600,700,800, and 900 series), Boeing 787, Airbus A320, A330, A340 and A380, Canadair RJ, Airbus A318 and several other business jets.

By overlaying contextually relevant information, such as instructions and explanations, in a worker’s field of view, that worker can work faster and with higher quality.

At GE Aviation, smart glasses allow mechanics to check reference manuals without needing to stop working. This has resulted in an 8 to 12 percent improvement in efficiency.

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At Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, rich visualization through wearable augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) devices allow researchers to virtually step inside molecules and study them from every angle.

Hearables

At Lufthansa Airlines, voice-based headphones enable a single technician to accomplish maintenance work that previously required two workers. Before, one technician would read out instructions while the other executed them.

With the hearable, the maintenance checklist is converted into voice commands, and the single technician speaks the status of each task as it is being completed. That speech is automatically converted into data and stored.

Today, we can look up vital information with minimal effort through the use of voice-activated data and information retrieval systems such as Apple's Siri, Google's Assistant, and Amazon's Alexa. And sometimes, we aren't needed at all.

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