With Industry 4.0 in full swing, Stephan Biller, Vice President Watson IoT at IBM, outlines how sensors, AI and IoT are set to redefine asset management and worker safety.
Any company will tell you that their people are at the heart of their business – yet workplace injuries still remain a pervasive problem. Each year, over 350mn workers get hurt – some even fatally. In fact, every 15 seconds a worker dies from a work-related accident or disease, according to the International Labour Organisation. Despite mounting safety regulations and procedures, workplace accidents are still an all too common occurrence which can have a devastating impact on an employee’s health and livelihood. As well as the distress of an employee suffering injury, employers may also have to contend with a slump in productivity or significant financial losses. Companies need to advance worker safety and – by using cutting-edge technologies like wearables, artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) – IBM is hoping to offer a helping hand.
One technology in IBM’s repertoire that’s helping to aid worker safety is IBM Maximo. “It’s arguably one of the best enterprise asset management systems,” enthuses Stephan Biller, Vice President Watson IoT at IBM. “Essentially, it can help businesses schedule maintenance in a factory, reducing unplanned downtime.” On top of this, when combined with IoT data from wearables, environmental sensors and other sources, the software solution highlight issues that workers may face such as overexposure to heat, injury from falls, or overexertion. When you visualise wearable technologies, you might think of FitBits, the personal wristwatch that measures your heart rate or the steps you’ve taken that day. However, it’s clear that wearables are making their way into the industrial sector – and they’re here to stay.
Yet, when data privacy has become such a hot topic in the technology space, IBM doesn’t underestimate the challenges that may arise from wearables and IoT. With this in mind, Biller points out how the firm has “an iron-clad” policy whereby it will “never access the data unless clients ask us too”. On top of this, IBM also encourages clients to work closely with trade unions and employees to ensure they understand the merits of the technology and that they’re included in the journey. Just like any technological shift, culture change is key if you want to drive innovation. Biller outlines this view noting that ‘software is just one piece of any digital transformation.' The most important thing is the cultural transformation that goes with it.” So, how do you ensure that the people aren’t left behind? How do you empower your workers and make them more productive? “It’s about creating the optimal solution for both the business process and the employee,” explains Biller. “Let’s take the example of a machine that needs to be maintained at all times. Perhaps the machine uses sensors and IoT to collect data about the temperature, for example and visualises this data. The machine may suggest three solutions the employee could take but the worker can still say yes or no to this because they usually have a lot of experience. Over time, you may want to do more automation but you shouldn’t do it for the sake of it, you should do it because the person on the factory line thinks it’s a good idea and that it will make them more productive.”
Biller points to quality control as another area where IBM has flexed its muscles. Imagine an operator in an LCD factory inspects LCD screen’s eight hours a day. The employee might suffer from eye strain after monitoring screens all day and this is where AI software could be a useful aid. “AI could analyse the factory and decided whether the LCD screen is good or not, then afterwards you could still have a by-hand inspection as a backup. As you’re doing that, the software will improve – because it’s AI it’s continuously learning. I think this is a good example because it’s aiding the operator, making them more productive and helping to derive better quality.”
IoT and AI can not only help safeguard worker safety and boost productivity, but it can also help to retain generational knowledge and train new staff. “A lot of the maintenance workers, especially the experienced ones, are close to retirement,” explains Biller. “This means we’re going to see huge brain drain walking out of the factories, and the question is, how do you capture that knowledge? How do you make sure that the people who are coming in can actually benefit from the knowledge of their more experienced peers who are retiring?” With this burning question in mind, IBM has put forward Equipment Maintenance Assistant.
“We've taken all the maintenance manuals, looked at all the historical cases of when a machine fails, examined the maintenance the technician did, and how the machine performed afterwards. Then we’ve used article intelligence to create a solution which can help a less-experienced worker by offering three of four examples of how the failure can be best fixed.” IBM has also enhanced this solution with what it calls ‘augmented collaboration’. You can think of this as a sort of phone-a-friend” says Biller. “If the maintenance technician believes the automated solution isn’t sufficient, they can call someone remotely to ask for advice. They then can and use a camera to highlight the issue and the worker can solve the issue remotely.”
Before joining the team at IBM, Biller cut his teeth at firms such as General Motors and General Electric and so he’s all too aware of the importance of proper asset maintenance and worker safety. With this in mind, he believes that IBM positions itself as the ideal partner. “Thanks to our vast industrial knowledge we have a huge advantage over the competition,” Biller says, noting how IBM truly understands the challenges and opportunities facing its clients. “I'm a technology guy,” he adds. “But the key to success is knowing your client’s business problems and knowing how you can use the right technology to solve that. Because of the industrial experience it has gained over the decades, this is where IBM has a leg up on the competition.”