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Leveraging mobility to ensure worker safety during COVID-19

Situational awareness technologies using hazardous condition sensors, cameras and geo-location will introduce an increased reliance on wireless communications networks, AI and industrial IoT


July 7, 2020
By David E. Nowoswiat

Topics
NetworkingPhoto: © matejmo/Getty Images

Almost six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the manufacturing industry is beginning to look for ways to get back to business as it faces the “new normal.”

In its first stages, the pandemic closed non-essential facilities, many of which implemented work-from-home for workers that could do so. Companies that were deemed essential were given stringent guidelines that limited employee contact and required additional cleaning and safety procedures.

In this current phase, many countries are now beginning to open up, and manufacturing – along with other industries – has a role to play in restarting operations as they reassess their supply chain to meet pent-up demand, as well as find new sources that may be closer to home.

But how to re-start without compromising worker safety and meeting public health guidelines is the question confronting everyone in the manufacturing sector. Some of the changes that are required are procedural: shifting break and lunch times to make social distancing possible, re-arranging work areas, putting barriers in place and adopting PPE more widely.

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But rising to the challenge will also likely mean accelerating digitalization and automation trends associated with Industry 4.0, which had already begun pre-COVID-19.

To this end, there are digital transformation use cases already in action that allow industries to operate more safely and minimize risk. Automation and robotics have long played a key role in manufacturing, but increased adoption can for example help reduce crowding of workers on a factory floor.

Situational awareness technologies using environmental and hazardous condition sensors, cameras and geo-location will also find a new role, as will new, smarter PPE. All of these technologies will introduce an increased reliance on wireless communications networks, AI and machine learning, as well as industrial IoT.

Mobility key to flexibility

In order to go beyond the current levels of automation and remote operation, next-generation systems will have to be more mobile and flexible. This is because we are reaching the limits of what wired equipment and traditional assembly lines can do to increase productivity.

New, more agile cell manufacturing will allow manufacturers to respond rapidly to shifting demands. This requirement was well-illustrated in the early weeks of the pandemic as manufacturers fought to adapt quickly and retool their processes to produce ventilators, respirators and PPE. This was a dramatic reminder that today’s manufacturers and their often global supply chains need to respond quickly to whatever the market demands.

Mobility is critical to this new agility. Fortunately, 4G and 5G wireless networks now offer robust support not only for mobility, but also for greatly improved reliability, coverage and latency.

Wireless technologies such as Wi-Fi have had only limited success in the connected factory because they lack the necessary reliability and performance predictability, they can suffer from spotty coverage, and may experience long delays for mobile hand-offs. All of these issues are however resolved easily by 4G and 5G.

Mobility is critical to this new agility. Fortunately, 4G and 5G wireless networks now offer robust support not only for mobility, but also for greatly improved reliability, coverage and latency.

In addition, many production processes require immediate feedback from sensors making latency a critical consideration for automated manufacturing. This is one of the great strengths of 5G in particular, which is capable when deployed with multi-edge computing, of achieving latencies in the range of 1–2 ms – an order of magnitude far greater than Wi-Fi, when access points are congested.

The ultra-low latency capabilities of 5G, together with Time-Sensitive Networking for precise and deterministic machine communications, can increase automation and collaboration of robots and workers without requiring cabling.

Hazard response

For government and municipal first responders, situational awareness is important during safety events and crisis situations, and many of them are increasingly adopting 4G/5G wireless for their emergency networks. The same logic also applies to any industrial activity where the environment can present hazards to worker safety, as is now the case in the ‘new normal’.

Currently, using cameras and sensors based in a centralized operational control centre, it is already possible to monitor workers and geo-fence areas where hazards exist. And using smart PPE, wearable sensors can detect the presence of harmful materials and alert any impacted workers.

Software analytics also offer the ability to analyze video footage and alert personnel that a safety incident may have occurred in a crowded public space. Using wireless to communicate with central operations systems, it is also possible for everyone in the factory to be alerted simultaneously and for response teams to be deployed. Hazard alerts can trigger automated responses such as cut-off valves to isolate the situation.

Using cameras and sensors based in a centralized operational control centre, it is already possible to monitor workers and geo-fence areas where hazards exist. And using smart PPE, wearable sensors can detect the presence of harmful materials and alert any impacted workers.

This array of technologies can now be applied to the current situation, where unfortunately, proximity to fellow workers has become a safety issue. With 5G, these technologies could be combined with very precise geolocation capabilities to monitor workers’ location in the facility and to warn them to maintain social distancing.

Debates are ongoing about how privacy could be managed, but it is feasible for such technology to allow public health authorities to do forensic analysis in the event of an outbreak in a facility. The ability to monitor compliance with social distancing rules may also become a condition for opening (or re-opening) a facility in the future.

So, as we make the first cautious steps to get day-to-day operations back up and running, manufacturing has a critical role to play. Fortunately, there are wireless-enabled technologies available today and coming on-stream imminently that can greatly advance the safeguarding of workers’ health and wellbeing.

David E. Nowoswiat is a senior enterprise marketing manager with over 25 years of telecom and industry experience in wireless and wireline technologies. He is currently in Nokia’s Enterprise Marketing organization supporting the manufacturing segment in their digitalization initiatives.