It is Time to Set the Record Straight on What a Connected Worker Platform Actually Is.

Every day we send our work crews out into the plant to execute jobs based on the daily schedule and the work orders that are included in the work plan.  To get to this point the organization spends a great deal of time and effort estimating, planning, materializing, and scheduling the work to optimize the effectiveness and efficiency of the crews. If everything goes as planned, we will have a highly effective workforce in the field daily, but that is seldom the case. There are many variables that serve to invalidate even the best plan and work schedule which in turn negatively impacts well-orchestrated work execution. Improved logistics, utilizing well thought out and applied work processes can resolve many of these issues to prior to the initiation of the work. Nevertheless, once the crews are released to the field, variables over which we have no control often cause schedule changes, interruptions of the planned work and work crews attempting to execute jobs that are not properly prepared.  If you view these issues at a macroscopic level what is clear is that once the crews leave for their scheduled jobs; ineffectiveness, inefficiency and lack of workforce productivity can easily be the result. The reason that our workforce and the work that they perform are not optimized for maximum benefit is that they are essentially disconnected once they are released to perform their daily work.

1. The Workforce

What is needed is the establishment of a totally connected workforce which includes all levels of management, the plant workforce, the on-site contractors, Operations and all the other organizations that have an impact on how work is performed.

Recent innovations have made achieving a connected workforce a reality, but you need to carefully examine each offering to determine the level and complexity of connectivity provided.  There are many technologies on the market today that claim to be “connected worker” platforms. They fly under the “connected worker” flag even though they only provide limited connectivity to a specific group of the frontline workforce. These programs are mainly app-based on third-party devices that provide siloed functionality, no capabilities to provide the network needed for connection and limited communication. If every worker is not connected, then achieving a connected workforce is not possible.  To create a totally connected workforce there are several components that are absolutely required to attain a successful outcome.  The first of these components is that we need to provide a tool that enables the entire workforce to be totally digitally connected. 

If we step outside of the plant gate, we immediately see that the lack of personal connectivity is not the norm. Everyone is connected by their cell phones.  We make calls, send text messages if we desire an immediate response or simply use the phone to acquire and transmit information. This level of connectivity typically does not exist within the plant environment or if it does it is in a very limited manner. Inside the plant without a connected workforce, efficient movement, and coordination of resources daily in the field is an extremely difficult task. 

To further complicate the problem, in most plants our aging workforce is being replaced by younger technicians.  They function with their cell phones almost if they were a part of their anatomy.  Outside of work they are digitally connected, and in the plant, this level of connectivity will be expected because this is how they live their lives.  To do less will cause frustration and hamper their ability to execute work.

The first thing that we need to do is to figure out a way to digitally connect everyone working in the plant.  Initially many believed that utilizing cell phones was the answer, but it is not. On a limited basis cell phones will work but on a larger plant-wide scale the high degree of communication required for the entire workforce is beyond the capabilities of cell phones and the cell phone related support systems.  In addition, a survey conducted on the topic of utilization of personal cell phones for business clearly indicated that over 80% of the personnel within management and the hourly workforce would not choose to use their personal cell phones in this manner.  When asked why the most prevalent comment was, they believed that utilizing their cell phone in this manner was a violation of their personal space and an imposition on how they chose to use their personal property. 

To make things even more complicated, if the company were to support the use of an individual’s personal phone for business many questions and problems immediately arise; who would reimburse the owner for breakage or loss, who will pay for company related charges, how will these charges be differentiated from personal use and how would a company address the additional charges if someone was to exceed the usage limitation covered by their cell phone plan.  In other words, utilizing a personal cell phone to establish workforce connectivity is not the answer. These problems and others such as the excessive cost to implement and maintain a company owned system exist if the company were going to try to issue cell phones to the employees.  The bottom line is that cell phone use either personal or company owned is impractical.

So, what is the solution to overcoming our first problem – establishing total workforce connectivity?  What is needed is a standalone and interconnected device that is not a cell phone, can be provided to all employees by the company and is economically feasible.  This device needs to go beyond simply connecting all plant personnel.  It needs to provide applications that contribute to improved safety, work productivity and improved asset reliability.

The answer to our needs is a digital personal smart badge.  This tool delivers a wide range of benefits and is the first step towards a totally connected workforce.  The device is wearable, lightweight, Class I Div2 compliant, weather and dust-proof and inexpensive which makes providing it to all employees easily attainable.  Additionally, a Smart Badge comes equipped with many other applications that allows the user to take advantage of this form of technology.  Examples of the available applications include two – way video, talk and text communication with the workforce in the field, individual or group communication between members of the workforce, language translation, immediate access to stored information, continual monitoring of safety and health related issues of the workers, request and dispatch resources to the point of work, and the ability to locate personnel within the facility via geofencing.

A word here about geofencing is important. Geofencing is flexible. You can install a digital geofence around any geographical area or location within your facility. When individuals enter the geofenced area, their presence within that location is identified by their Smart Badges, enabling all the functionality the Smart Badge brings to the table specific to the location in which the employees are working. To many, this ability to locate personnel via the Smart Badge may be perceived as “spying on the workforce” but if one of the workers was injured and the badge enabled Safety to initiate a rapid response they would feel far different about its value.

Having every employee equipped with a Smart Badge is only one part of the three-part equation called the Digital Connectivity Tripod.  After all, a Smart Badge is useless without a robust in-plant network that enables this level of connectivity to take place.  

2. The Network

Plants – especially those that are not enclosed in a building such as a refinery, cover a wide geographic area, often have network related problems or possibly no in-plant network at all. These problems present themselves in several ways.

  • Refineries, chemical plants, and others that are not enclosed within a building have a great deal of metal present in the form of structural supports, piping, and equipment. This makes connectivity through a wireless network extremely difficult and very expensive.
  • Due to work efforts where there is a large workforce on site, such as a turnaround or major project, a network could be easily overloaded rendering the benefit of a connected workforce severely diminished.
  • A permanently installed network can be very expensive and inefficient as the plant configuration changes. An alternative is to install routers in the operators control shelters, but this limits the ability of attaining full connectivity.
  • In-plant networks are extremely expensive to maintain, far beyond the cost of initial installation.

There are three network solutions that can be employed to overcome these issues: Wi-Fi, public LTE via a public carrier or a private dedicated pLTE network through an independent carrier.  The first two solutions come with serious drawbacks and make the ability to attain a totally connected workforce difficult if not impossible.

Let us examine some of the problems associated with the first two solutions.

Wi-Fi – This application has a narrower bandwidth, thereby reducing capacity. Bandwidth is a serious concern in a turnaround or major project situation where there is a large workforce on site and total connectivity is your goal. In some situations, Wi-Fi is not predictable; if it encounters any interruption, the ability to communicate with your workforce is compromised. Wi-Fi coverage is also very limited — you need to be approximately 300 feet away from a wireless router to maintain a reliable connection. This factor necessitates the use of numerous routers and extenders to achieve a somewhat stable network. Last, but not least, is the lack of security with a Wi-Fi system.

Public LTE / Public Carrier – This solution also has serious drawbacks. First, the coverage could be extremely limited and not support the connectivity required at your location. This challenge occurs most frequently where public networks do not exist or are not sufficiently robust to satisfy the needs of a plant with high levels of data usage. The problem is that public LTE will use the towers already in place, which, in some locations, may be significantly limited due to geography. Just as with Wi-Fi, if the public network experiences interruptions, your level of connectivity no longer exists. A public carrier also requires you to pay for data consumption or buy packages based on the estimated level of use. There can also be security issues when attempting to utilize a public LTE network.

The third solution, a private LTE network provides the ability to create and maintain a totally connected mobile workforce for the following reasons.

  • It is faster and more predictable than other solutions
  • The system has greater capacity and total plant coverage
  • It is an on-site, private network dedicated to your facility
  • It does not rely on public networks that are geographically restricted by public cell towers
  • It provides robust and controllable security, and you can indicate who has access to what part of the network
  • There is no cost for data consumption

To further reinforce the value of the private LTE network, a study was conducted during a plant turnaround comparing a public LTE network to a private LTE network. The results showed that the private LTE network was far superior in both upload and download capability.

3. Workforce Optimization Software

Having the Smart Badge and network solutions is two of the three parts of the digitally connected workforce solution.  The third and final part is the need for a workforce optimization software.  It’s fine to have a workforce equipped with smart badges and a network to move information around, but you need a place to process all of the data and information that is generated in order to be able to obtain value.

There are many mobility solutions currently utilized in industry. The vast majority of these are what are referred to as single focused, meaning that they gather, analyze and report with respect to a single function only. An example of this could be vibration temperature and monitoring for the process pumps and motors within the plant.  An application of this sort provides specific information to specific individuals, but often the information is restricted.  These applications are referred to as information or application silos.

As much value as single focused mobility tools deliver, they come with one significant drawback; they cannot easily share critical business-related information with all of those throughout the organization who may need it.  This is where a workforce optimization platform, the third leg of the digital connectivity tripod, comes into play.

The solution to the problem of multiple database silos and the related files is to implement a digital data management system.  A system of this sort is a digital hub connecting all the information previously only available in standalone applications. A workforce optimization system can import and export data, link and unify related data streams, field validate data, provide real-time reporting and KPIs, analyze the information and provide the analysis via the network and the Smart Badge to all those who require it for their everyday safety and reliability-based business decisions.

Conclusion:

Many software companies claim to connect the workforce but lack vital functionality. Having Smart Badges in the hands of all employees, company, and contractor alike, coupled with a private LTE network and supported by a robust workforce optimization system provides you with a totally connected workforce.  The three legs of the tripod are essential and enable you to optimize workforce performance.  The combination of these three elements can go a long way to assuring that safety-based actions are made based on accurate information and with involvement of connected, knowledgeable personnel within the plant.  A solution of this sort is what creates industry pacesetters.

For more information, please contact us: hello@weavix.com

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