PPE and the Internet of Things

April 4, 2017
PPE wearables and sensors dramatically can improve worker health and safety.

Reduced costs, improved worker productivity and a decrease in worker injury are driving the development of smart wearables and sensors in industrial environments.

We live in a constantly connected, data-driven world. Consumers who grew up on the internet and adopted smartphones expect a continuous stream of data, instant updates and products that intuitively answer their needs. This change in consumer expectations has led to a rise in demand for more connected products.

The Internet of Things, or IoT, is answering that expectation by turning everyday products into the equivalent of a smartphone: tools with advanced features that enhance usability or increase efficiency. Far from being a mere buzzword for nifty gadgets, smart products have been driving innovation in numerous industries in the last half decade. IoT and the smart products it creates are revolutionizing expectations about data and connectivity while opening new channels of business value.

It's easy to pinpoint the reasons for this rapid rise in smart technology adoption. Hardware and electronics prices continue to fall, so the costs of connectivity and embedded sensors no longer deter companies from adopting smart technology. Connectivity solutions, including Wi-Fi, Zigbee, mobile networks and Broadband communication are ubiquitous and capable of supporting large volumes of IoT connectivity at little incremental cost to enterprises and consumers.

More companies each year adopt sensors and connectivity to yield greater value, not only through the promise of data, but also by providing better safety and long-term cost savings through active prevention of accidents. These products measure and react, but ultimately, they protect the individual and prevent health issues and tragic situations.

This disruptive force slowly is entering personal protective equipment (PPE). Workers rely on PPE to ensure their safety. End users, employers and purchasers share a strong common interest: To provide the PPE and other safety equipment that not only complies with regulations, but also genuinely increases protection by lowering the risk of (and even prevents) workplace injuries and the ensuing costs. It is up to employers to request "smart" safety equipment and the manufacturers from which they purchase to make this happen.

In this way, IoT presents a prime opportunity for the booming health and safety equipment market. A 2015 Markets and Markets report puts the worth of the PPE market at $52.4 billion by 2020. Projections from Market Insights Inc. put the global PPE market at over $67 billion by 2023.

Strict regulations, the need to differentiate offerings and the search for better safety solutions are driving market expansion. As with other industries, wearables and smart sensors that improve safety increasingly will be adopted by factories and manufacturers and lead to regulatory changes that promise an even greater edge to the companies who are first adopters.

The Challenges

One of the greatest challenges faced by safety professionals is increasing user safety and decreasing injury-related costs within existing regulations.

From factories to construction sites, work environments are full of health hazards and dangers. In 2015, there were approximately 2.9 million non-fatal injuries and illnesses reported by private industry employers, per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The causes of these injuries range from the actual equipment to environmental hazards.

Industrial noise, for example, is an overlooked occupational hazard. Each year, approximately 22 million U.S. workers are exposed to potentially damaging noise levels. Even seemingly uncontaminated environments may contain hazards such as paint, wood and dust particles, along with harmful chemicals that can interfere with breathing and even cause long-term health issues.

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PPE manufacturers are looking for ways to improve worker health and safety without significantly increasing production costs. Scott Safety has developed PPE wearables and sensor-embedded solutions for firefighters, including a gas mask with a thermal camera. Even companies unrelated to PPE have realized the market opportunity; augmented reality company Daqri's flagship product is a smart construction helmet that increases user efficiency through connectivity with the control room and data about their actions and the environment. On the opposite spectrum, multinational conglomerate Honeywell prototyped a smart helmet for first responders and industrial workers to increase worker safety and productivity.

For these companies and others, IoT is triggering innovation. In the realm of PPE, companies are beginning to produce wearable technologies that improve performance and reduce error, along with products that send information from tools and equipment to systems that monitor the environment and improve equipment maintenance.

The Opportunity

In November 2016, Forbes shared a heatmap by Forrester that listed the industries with the most opportunity for wearables and sensors. The hottest sectors included chemistry, oil and gas, primary manufacturing and industrial production. The opportunities for smart sensors and wearables in these industries are tremendous. 

Many industries already are realizing the benefits of smart sensors and connected technology for data-driven decision-making. In the United States alone, more than one-third of manufacturers currently are gathering data via smart sensors and using it to improve efficiency and operating processes.

Thirty-eight percent are embedding sensors in products that enable end-users to collect information about their own use. By implementing wearables and sensors, manufacturers enrich both end-user experience and generate insight from data that leads to new business value for their company. Here are just a few examples of the added value these products deliver: 

Smart PPE saves time and improves productivity through connectivity, live updates and remote communication.

Sensors automate processes that currently take place through manual labor. Daily inspection of containers can be replaced with a smart app and sensors that monitor for leakage or temperature changes. When a leak is detected, the smart system sends an alert directly to the control room. The sensors, coupled with connectivity to mobile apps and data storage on the cloud, create a safer environment and save both end-users and their employers' valuable time and expense.

Saving lives and actively preventing injury cuts down on costs associated with workplace accidents. Smart sensors and components, in combination with connectivity and data storage, enable personal protective equipment to offer better health and safety protection.

Sensors can warn us about everything from rising flood levels, to nearby poisonous gases, to whether a child has been left strapped inside a hot car.

"Smart" health and safety equipment can identify patterns or danger points that can lead to injury or which increase risk. Imagine the potential of a mine or oil rig with a network of connected sensors that prevent falls and fatal accidents.

Smart PPE Wearables and Sensors

Once the decision has been made to develop a smart product or smart system, PPE manufacturers still face the critical question: What should the use case contain? Which behaviors should the system enable?

The IoT nearly is limitless, and there are hundreds of applications for every industry and hundreds for each product. While these are some of the most common applications of wearables and sensors in PPE, they are not the only ones by far:

  1. Locating system – Smart mines are cropping up today which use a network system to identify the location of each miner.
  2. Smart communication systems – Smart helmets, ear muffs and face masks provide fast, effective communication in loud or low-visual environments.
  3. Safer equipment – Smart lockout/tagout, backing cameras and warning devices, smart automation on machines and other automated safety measures keep workers safer.
  4. Environmental protection from invisible risks – Smart protective clothing with gas, chemical, heat, sound, UV, impact and pulse sensors monitor both the external environment and the user, alerting them to danger in time for preventative steps and alerting supervisors if workers are in trouble.
  5. Improve efficiency through remote management – Smart, connected safety containers monitor hazardous materials via chemical and liquid sensors, and send regular notifications or LED/sound alerts when things are fine. And if there is a leak, the smart container alerts the control room directly.
  6. Phone-based app alerts – Smart sensors and wearables connected to apps can send crucial alerts, from notifying EMTs that their medicine is out of date, to alerting users when they misuse a tool, to warnings about weather and emergency situations at a facility.

The Future for Smart PPE Products

In theory, IoT is an equal opportunity incubator for innovation; however, it often differentiates between companies of varying resources and experience. Developing smart products is complicated, expensive and risky. Smaller companies may have difficulty acquiring the many resources and teams necessary to ideate, develop and produce a smart product and bring it to market. The companies that find it easier to handle these new processes and the complications involved are enterprises; companies with pre-existing R&D teams or those with electronic departments. And even these companies can find the integration of hardware, firmware and software, the collaboration between teams and the numerous steps involved, complicated.

Thankfully, IoT development platforms are emerging that enable companies of all sizes and resource levels to take advantage of smart technology. With a platform for concept design and development, product managers can innovate and plan the right concept for their needs, choose exactly which hardware and smart behaviors they want and differentiate their offering through their choice of hardware and software.

Even business planning, costs and timeline estimation happen more smoothly with a platform, as it allows for collaboration between teams and easy concept testing.

Unlike add-ons, platforms and their IoT ecosystems also give product manufacturers the power to choose their providers for hardware, app development, prototyping and production. Most importantly, with their development software and guidance, platforms generate a level playing field by enabling any company, whatever their tech resources or size, to develop smart products.

As time goes on, IoT platforms will merge to create strong ecosystems that provide a full suite of solutions for developing smart PPE products. With a single platform and its marketplace of partners, PPE manufacturers can take a smart concept from the initial idea to prototype creation to production, and even get insight through collected data. With these solutions making IoT development easier and faster than ever, companies of all sizes will soon adopt smart technology and develop more wearables and sensors for PPE.

IoT is changing how we think about PPE. Just as the introduction of seatbelts led to new regulations about driving safety, smart technology will raise the standards of health and safety. The opportunity to save lives, cut down on injury-related costs and drive product differentiation through innovation is available and active now.

Lior Akavia, co-founder and CEO of Seebo, always has been passionate about integrating the physical and digital worlds. His understanding of complex technology, combined with an ability to intuit where the ball is going, has led him to the rapidly changing field of IoT. With his brother Liran, he previously launched Playfect (acquired), a company manufacturing gaming accessories for Wii, Playstation and Xbox. It was there that they realized the difficulty of developing connected devices, and decided to solve the challenge once and for all and founded Seebo. Akavia can be reached at [email protected].

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