Collection No 6

Future of Work

The Future of Industrial Work

The industrial worker of tomorrow will be hyper-connected and supported by advanced real-time analytics.

If you are one of the lucky 65 million passengers to fly through Chicago’s O’Hare Airport this year, you will probably experience a delay. At some point all of us have found ourselves waiting at the airport or sitting on the tarmac in the seemingly endless line of planes queued for takeoff, giving little thought to the massive scale of today’s infrastructure and the effort it would take to improve it. To reduce congestion, O’Hare is undergoing a 10-year modernization effort that, when complete, will have consumed over 430 acres of land, displaced 2,800 people, moved almost 1,500 graves, and cost over $7.4 billion.

When we fly in a plane, switch on a light, drive across a bridge, or turn on the water, we take for granted the extensive network of people who plan, construct, and protect these basic necessities. We assume that infrastructure simply exists. However, behind every light switch, building, roadway, water main, aircraft, and bridge there are thousands of engineers, construction workers, and inspectors working tirelessly to make these modern conveniences safe and dependable. Better tools to support collaboration, decision-making, and the safety of these vital industrial workers are on the horizon.

Unfortunately, consumer and enterprise technology products regularly leave the industrial workforce in the technology shadows. Many industrial settings are both hazardous and technically complex, combining limited dexterity and extreme environmental conditions with intermittent connectivity and limited power. The result is a lack of streamlined data collection, an inability for the broader business to track and monitor what is happening in real time, and a delay in the ongoing analysis required to support the business. All cause unrealized losses in efficiency for both the workers and the organization.

However, things are changing. Increases in computational power, the continued reduction in size and increased longevity of battery life, and a broader reach of connectivity all benefit the industrial workforce. When combined with advances in machine-to-machine interoperability—to support Internet of Things and Industrial Internet standards—the future of the industrial worker is hyper-connected and supported by advanced real-time analytics. Looking beyond the engineering advances that continually push forward materials and engineering innovation, the future of the industrial workforce will accelerate in very specific ways, through better collaboration, inspection, decision support, connectivity, and safety.

Remote Collaboration

In the electrical utility sector, communication between ground crews and central operations has been commonplace for years, because the electrical grid is managed remotely. For example, when managing unplanned electrical outages, ground crews need to be able to communicate with central operations to keep crews safe. Real-time collaboration also solves problems quickly. This is particularly true when dealing with complex engineering problems common to every industrial vertical. As connectivity permeates hard-to-reach places, more images and reports can be sent in real time to central operations, where experienced engineers provide advice to crews on the ground. This type of workflow is called remote collaboration.

In the future, remote collaboration will extend across a broader range of industries. Rail, oil and gas, and aviation have already begun to embrace this emerging workflow. Additionally, as imaging, connectivity, and remote analysis of records continue to improve, we will see enhanced methods continue to evolve. For example, aviation inspection teams working to keep airplane engines operational—and passengers safe—will have more detailed information about previous repairs and recommended fixes, as well as the ability to analyze 3-D models of potential flaws. This information will be reviewed in real time, in collaboration with senior engineers in central operations centers.

Inspection and Decision Support

The critical role inspectors play in keeping infrastructure sound is often undervalued, but inspectors have benefited from recent technological advancements. High-quality digital records are transitioning to storage in the cloud, and this transition is having distinctive effects on inspection. Inspection records can be analyzed off-site, enabling advanced analytics and prognostics, while the increased fidelity of digital records enables inspectors to obtain a more complete picture of a potential problem.

An emerging inspection trend is the use of aerial drones to support the remote inspection of assets that are hard to access, such as gas pipelines or remote power lines. Accessing this infrastructure via high-resolution, real-time imagery from a drone is faster than traditional inspection because the drone is deployed immediately. It is also safer because a human is not sent to the remote location. While it is true that drones lack the detailed perspective of a human, the benefits of speed and safety are clear when drones are used to assess and inspect remote infrastructure.

Improved Safety

Following proper procedures is not only good practice, but also a regulated and required way of working for the industrial workforce. Digital enhancements intended to help workers follow safety procedures for construction and repairs are emerging. A company called Wearable Intelligence aims to use augmented reality to aid oil and gas workers while they are working in the field. Wearable Intelligence provides engineers and inspectors with real-time checklists and context-aware notifications via Google Glass, and these improve workflow efficiency, safety, and compliance.

Although engineers, inspectors, and other members of the industrial workforce are often silent partners in our daily lives, they keep our aging infrastructure safe and our economy growing. Their future is our future. By supporting them and providing sophisticated tools that are connected and collaborative, we improve inspection, enhance safety and, in turn, create a better future.

Michael DelGaudio

Michael balances creative and analytical thinking with one goal: bring the future into focus through the vehicle of design.

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