Workplace wearables

Take a break: the SmartCap can measure brain activity and give warnings about fatigue
Take a break: the SmartCap can measure brain activity and give warnings about fatigue
You got mail: wearables are increasingly being used for communications
You got mail: wearables are increasingly being used for communications
Slow start: ports are behind the curve when it comes to embracing wearables. Credit: emulibra
Slow start: ports are behind the curve when it comes to embracing wearables. Credit: emulibra
"The technology must be in sync with the human operator – technicians need to know so much more today," Mark Homer, ServiceMax

Wearables can target safety and communications, finds Martin Rushmere

There is no doubt that wearables are in vogue and could become the norm for ports in the future. Industry professionals see it as the equivalent of a GPS and magnetic compass - with the technology being the GPS and the human brain the compass.

However, ports have still to be persuaded that the technology brings real progress and are staying with the most popular of what might be called "fringe wearables", confined mostly to dozens of applications on smartphones with specialized functions linked to vessel and terminal operations. Coupled with these are smartwatches and, to a lesser extent, GoogleGlass.

As an example of the industry's reluctance to adopt more innovative ideas, no port on the US Western Seaboard, including Los Angeles, has ventured further than smartphone applications.

This is partly due to the fact that much of the equipment and tools that technicians lug around in maritime and industrial work is already related to safety and security. Mark Homer, vice-president of ServiceMax, which provides a cloud-based software platform to link devices and wearables for outdoor workers, can testify to this: "For technicians, half of their equipment is probably safety orientated."

Underscoring this is Graham Bell, principal marine risk consultant at Allianz Risk Consulting. "In high risk, fast moving port terminals, such as container terminals, the drive appears to be to remove the 'human presence' as much as possible and rely more and more on automated/remote mechanical handling/transport operations within the terminal via a central control room in order to reduce incidents, accidents and human injuries and fatalities."

As one port technician puts it: "I sometimes groan when I hear that management wants to introduce some new safety/security device. We already have enough equipment – I still have not yet been able to get rid of my laptop on the job outside, despite having a smartphone with all sorts of operational apps. If equipment cuts down on what we already have, well and good, provided it of course does not also cut down on safety."

Technology is there

Software is certainly not the issue. Companies such as ServiceMax can provide almost any programme or application for any industry. "Our emphasis is on ensuring an end-to-end platform, maintaining high value assets, that brings about the convergence of safety equipment technology. This can include the use of virtual reality and RFID. It's all about operability."

The sophisticated wear is certainly available. Australian-based company SmartCap Tech supplies a "cap" – really a headband – that measures alertness and warns when the wearer is getting too fatigued. "We used EEG [brain activity recording] to track the level of alertness and wakefulness," says Brady Marcus, manager of the US operation. "A big risk for long, arduous operations such as mining equipment and truck driving is microsleep – best described as reaching a state where you consider yourself awake but cannot remember driving the last five miles.

"SmartCap prevents that microsleep and alerts you. It measures from level 2-3 of wakefulness and if you reach level 4 there is an alarm, which can be a combination of audio and visual." The newest model links the data to personal, smart devices.

Based on in-house software called Fatiguemanager, the system not only sends live updates but records what happened before. Mr Marcus emphasises that the system is devoted solely to fatigue levels. "We are not recording brain functions or brain waves or anything like that." The band can be used with any type of headwear.

The cost is a few hundred dollars for the sensor equipment plus a monthly subscription for using the full system.

Vopak exploration

Liquid and gas tank storage group Vopak says it is exploring and testing wearables. "We're actively using various portable detection devices for safety reasons (oxygen, explosion, H2S, CO2, other gases for specific purposes)," says a spokesperson. "We're also piloting intrinsically safe, i.e. explosion proof, handheld devices for communications, control and reporting and check purposes (e.g. electronic checklists)."

The quest will continue for improving safety and efficiency, says Vopak, but linked to the safety criteria that "we have very stringent requirements on explosion proof (ATEX, Ex) equipment".

Allianz's Mr Bell says: "Potential benefits of wearable tech such as the SmartCap should be reduced accidents and life threatening injuries to personnel, especially during night-time working periods where fatigue is widely acknowledged as being a common challenge. It is likely productivity/throughput should also improve due to increased awareness and monitoring.

"In my view if the technology is quite robust, reliable and resilient to cyber risks this could result in fewer insurance claims and increased productivity and safety records for port operators. All organisations are required to demonstrate that their staff are not subjected to fatigue especially during an accident/incident investigation so systems such as these will be valuable in demonstrating this. "

A target area that would suit such devices in my view," he continues, "would be where human interaction with automated and semi- automated port terminals is present. For example: truck drivers delivering/collecting containers at a container terminal that is a very high risk area.

Hand strapped

"Various forms of radio and cellular comms equipment are common," he says, "with some port centric warehousing operations using hand mounted/strapped scanning devices for SKU barcodes as part of the goods receipt/dispatch process and inventory management.

"However it could be quite costly to implement and requires someone to administer which might be good for the larger ports but for smaller ports it may be very cumbersome and/or time consuming and may need an additional staff member to administer/support.  

"Obviously any devices to improve safety are very much welcome," says Mr Bell," but this would need worker/union/management ‘buy-in’ for this type of technology and there could be some data protection issues/concerns in some countries."

Wearables are starting to be used in port training and simulation, with companies such as Holland's TBA at the forefront.

The technology has moved away from purely entertainment uses, so much so that the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is developing standards measurement and classification, (P1589 - Standard for an Augmented Reality Learning Experience Model), and is forming a collaborative working group in the oil and gas industries, known as the Industry Connections Activity, on augmented reality.

The IEEE introductory document on the working group notes: "Existing augmented reality devices have not yet achieved a state of readiness for widespread application in the oil, gas, and electric industries. 'Heads up Display' type devices are of particular interest; however a variety of issues need to be overcome including ruggedness, wireless connectivity, use case viability and human factors considerations."


Wearables are inevitably associated with the Internet of Things, with observers maintaining that the two are part and parcel of each other.

ServiceMax's Mr Homer says the automatic linking assumption can be taken too far. "IoT is not everything. What is important is merging technology effectively and not forgetting the human side. The technology must be in sync with the human operator... Technicians need to know so much more today.

"The future is a pattern of more of the same – convergence."

A ServiceMax survey of clients found that most decision makers (80%) reckon that IoT is important in the field, but only 12% of respondents ranked it as a priority investment. Just over 60% of respondents saw IoT as decreasing organisational costs by at least 5% in the next year. Fewer than 5% said there is nothing to gain from IoT.

According to Reportlinker, the market will be worth over $30bn in 2016, growing by 9% a year to over $40bn in 2018, gaining further popularity after that and growing by 23% to at least $100bn by 2023, and then growing by 10% to a minimum of $150bn by 2026.

Insight Partners says the market will reach $171bn in 2025, at a compound annual growth rate of 21 %. Hand-worn terminals products are forecast to grow by 24% to 2025.


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