Business Ready for Wearable Computers?

Wearable computing is starting to take off. Smartwatches, smart glasses, smart ID badges, and activity trackers promise to change how we go about each day and the way we do our jobs. According to Gartner Inc., sales of wearables will increase from 275 million units in 2016 to 477 million units by 2020. Although smartwatches such as the Apple Watch and fitness trackers have been successful consumer products, business uses for wearables ap­pear to be advancing more rapidly. A report from research firm Tractica projects that worldwide sales for enterprise wearables will increase exponentially to 66.4 million units by 2021.

Doctors and nurses are using smart eyewear for hands-free access to patients’ medical records. Oil rig workers sport smart helmets to connect with land-based experts, who can view their work remotely and communicate instructions. Warehouse managers are able to capture real-time performance data using a smartwatch to better manage distribu­tion and fulfillment operations. Wearable computing devices improve productivity by delivering informa­tion to workers without requiring them to interrupt their tasks, which in turn empowers employees to make more-informed decisions more quickly.

Wearable devices are helping businesses learn more about employees and the everyday workplace than ever before. New insights and information can be uncovered as IoT sensor data is correlated to actual human behavior. Information on task dura­tion and the proximity of one device or employee to another, when combined with demographic data, can shed light on previously unidentified workflow inefficiencies. Technologically sophisticated firms will understand things they never could before about workers and customers; what they do every day, how healthy they are, where they go, and even how well they feel. This obviously has implications for protect­ing individual privacy, raising potential employee (and customer) fears that businesses are collecting sensitive data about them. Businesses will need to tread carefully.

Global logistics company DHL worked with Ricoh, the imaging and electronics company, and Ubimax, a wearable computing services and solu­tions company, to implement “vision picking” in its warehouse operations. Location graphics are displayed on smart glasses guiding staffers through the warehouse to both speed the process of find­ing items and reduce errors. The company says the technology delivered a 25 percent increase in ef­ficiency. Vision picking gives workers locational in­formation about the items they need to retrieve and allows them to automatically scan retrieved items. Future enhancements will enable the system to plot optimal routes through the warehouse, provide pic­tures of items to be retrieved (a key aid in case an item has been misplaced on the warehouse shelves), and instruct workers on loading carts and pallets more efficiently.

Google has developed Glass Enterprise Edition smart glasses for business use, with its development partners creating applications for specific indus­tries such as manufacturing and healthcare. Glass Enterprise Edition is being touted as a tool for eas­ing workflows by removing distractions that prevent employees from remaining engaged and focused on tasks. More than 50 businesses including Dignity Health, The Boeing Company, and Volkswagen have been using Glass to complete their work more rap­idly and efficiently.

Duke Energy has been piloting the use of smart glasses, and sees multiple uses for them. According to Aleksandar Vukojevic, technology development manager for Duke Energy’s Emerging Technologies Office, smart glasses can enable employees working in the field to access training or instructional videos to help with equipment repairs or upgrades. The glasses also allow remote management, enabling managers to capture what a line or transformer worker sees, annotate images and video with in­structions, and send them back out to workers in the field. Duke also tried out the smart glasses in its warehouses for stock inventory. As a worker looks at an item code, it’s automatically recorded against an existing database.

There are some challenges. Locking down data that’s accessed with smart glasses is essential, as with any other mobile device used in the enterprise. Today’s smart glasses haven’t been designed with security in mind. The sensors in the smart glasses are also not as accurate as other products. A field  worker using smart glasses to locate a breaker or other device might be off by 10 or 15 feet using Google’s GPS instead of a military-grade solu­tion more common to the energy industry, which can locate equipment to within one centimeter. Additionally, smart glasses don’t necessarily allow safety glasses to be worn over them. Integrating data from smart glasses with Duke’s internal databases could prove difficult.

Smart glasses are like smartphones. Without integration with internal content and the right ap­plications, they would not be so useful. The value of wearable computing devices isn’t from transferring the same information from a laptop or smartphone to a smartwatch or eyeglass display. Rather, it’s about finding ways to use wearables to augment and enhance business processes. Successful adoption of wearable computing depends not only on cost effec­tiveness but on the development of new and better apps and integration with existing IT infrastructure and the organization’s tools for managing and securing mobile devices (see the chapter-ending case study).

Source: Laudon Kenneth C., Laudon Jane Price (2020), Management Information Systems: Managing the Digital Firm, Pearson; 16th edition.

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