If you read my previous Blog, you hopefully remember that moving beyond the Simple Connected Worker solutions, such as giving them a tablet so they can work better in the field, or using a Web conferencing tool to allow staff to work remotely, should begin by asking “What can we connect our workers to?” followed by asking the question “What if?”
From there, we can begin to dig into the more technical questions. These include “How would we?” along with “Does it make sense?” These two questions need to go hand-in-hand, as the cost may outweigh the benefit - but to know the cost we need to at least understand the solution.
In this Blog, we will talk about “How would we?” in more detail and consider where to start in validating the solution.
To do this, we need to take practical and prudent steps forward, making sure we can achieve the desired outcome without excessive costs or complexity. Like many digitization projects, a lot can often be done with minimal effort and cost, while achieving some more specialized goals may become unwieldy development projects with poor returns.
An interesting facet of the Connected Worker journey is that lessons can be learned by starting with modest experiments that may sometimes leverage consumer-grade products. Obviously, this is not always the case. When life and limb are at risk, or where exposing data prematurely to low levels of security may cause irreparable harm, more care is required.
Where the risks are acceptable, using components such as low-cost Webcams, off-the-shelf Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, triggers, devices, and common Cloud-based applications, like IFTTT (If This Then That), may be useful ways to prove out a solution or create a sandbox to verify assumptions.
I have seen several customers use SpaceX’s Starlink to provide connectivity to locations that are hard to service with classic on-ground network delivery services. This can provide a rapid solution to remote monitoring and the supplying of media-rich experiences to those in limited access areas. Remembering that residential service is not “supported” for commercial applications, it is essential that you ensure you have the correct service for Starlink (or any other consumed product for that matter) as you move to a production environment - avoiding the implications of violating contracts that may result in a withdrawal of service, or worse.
The consumer market can also add inspiration for commercial applications. Technically oriented people trying to monitor fish tanks and coffee machines, health-conscious users wanting to measure their runs and rides, and security-minded individuals wanting to be alerted when doors and windows were open, all led to the creation of many low-cost IoT solutions that are commonplace today. Taking the concept of monitoring temperatures and pump status in a fish tank easily translates to many applications in the commercial world.
Going a step further, by integrating a simple home monitoring system, a low-cost webcam, Google Assistant, IFTTT, and a notification tool called Pushover, it is relatively easy to develop a real-time alerting and management system, integrated with a car media unit to control and monitor a garage. These tools can become the template for monitoring an entire remote lights-out pumping station, or designing a tracking tool for devices within a hospital.
Your own creativity is often the most significant limitation when building innovative solutions to your everyday problems. Looking for new ways to solve existing problems may lead to exceptional outcomes.
It must be clearly restated that when people’s privacy, safety, and security are concerned, there is no room for experiments that may have detrimental impacts on those concerns. In those cases, more stringent proofs-of-concept are required, which may require more upfront costs and project work.
Returning to my first Blog, it is important to consider how the Connected Worker can be linked to not just things, but also to people and d - considering how other components such as phone and tablet devices, web conferencing solutions, and software solutions can all marry together to build a solution greater than the sum of the parts.
Once a potential solution has been identified, the project can begin in earnest. Having validated the concept, building a production-ready solution will typically increase costs significantly. Therefore, a solid business case should be developed to define the value of the project.
Costs to be accounted for should include capital investments; recurring investments such as software licenses, development, and integration costs; as well as any required commitments for deployment, training, and support. One of the most common areas for cost overruns in these projects is for development and integration, which are often hard to quantify upfront.
Another area to be carefully investigated before implementation is the Governance, Risk, and Compliance (GR&I) arena. Security and protection of your business, your customers, suppliers, and employees must be paramount in the project – just as important as the safety equipment worn by your staff in the field. “Connected Workers” extend the perimeter of your environment, adding complexity in protecting all aspects of your business.
Additionally, many Connected Worker solutions are directly impacted by compliance regulations. Protecting the privacy of all people involved, protecting critical infrastructure, and meeting financial obligations are non-negotiable. Considering this, involving your Security team, as well as outside advisors in both GRC and Security solutions can be helpful in ensuring your business meets the governance and policies required as your workforce extends your environment to the field.
Scalability is the next thing to address. Connected Worker solutions may be limited to a small group of field workers in some organizations but can scale to enormous numbers in other more generic solutions. Enabling every user with a mobile device, deploying trackers or sensors to every pump or machine, and developing software solutions that can handle thousands or millions of transactions per second all require a sophisticated level of planning and design to support. Being able to appropriately plan for the eventual required scale can save significant rework or reconfiguration of the solution down the line.
The final piece of advice is to scale sensibly. Like most projects, choosing initial targets for the project and deploying the solution in stages allows lessons to be learned as the roll-out progresses. Being that the Connected Worker is all about the “worker,” it is common for the most valuable adjustments and learnings to come from those living with the solution every day. For that to occur, it is essential for there to be a strong feedback loop to capture suggestions and ideas in real-time, which is all part of the Connected Worker mentality.
As was highlighted in the first Blog, the key value of the Connected Worker is not just to connect the worker to one thing, but rather for the solution to span all three areas of the Connected Worker value proposition, whenever possible.
By bringing together the three parts, we begin to see enhanced value in ways we might never have considered before. Let’s take the example of a field support engineer whose job is to support and repair devices in remote locations.
In the first instance, we might provide an application on a device to allow the field engineer to manage their work allocation throughout their day. Of course, this device can then provide wayfinding, not just to the location itself, but also throughout the campus, building, and down to the individual machine. This can make the employee more efficient, as well as allow for more accurate planning of the day, by providing real-time location tracking.
Once at the device, the user can leverage the handheld equipment and web conferencing capabilities to work interactively with a specialist in a remote location. This can allow for improved diagnostic time, as well as assist in supporting a much larger array of devices than the individual on the road can practically be trained for.
The device might also allow for command and control of the system being managed, allowing the field engineer to shut down the device, and control flows and functionality around the plant, while being able to instantly see the result where they are working. At the same time, we can integrate the device into a Safety Management System (SMS) that would allow for notification of the individual’s whereabouts and the actions they are taking.
Taking safety one step further, we could integrate sensors for dangerous environments, alerting both the engineer and support staff of any hazardous” conditions they may encounter. These sensors can be both present on the individual, as well as location-specific, providing additional levels of protection from a sensor failure.
So far, we have connected people and devices to the Connected Worker. From here we can begin to leverage the stream of data being captured to improve the outcomes for the field engineer, your business, and your customers.
A good example of this may be to use data lakes, machine learning, and Artificial Intelligence to deliver insights that may be hard for the human brain to identify. Historically, we use two models to maintain equipment in the field - run it until it breaks or apply scheduled maintenance to minimize the chances of failure. By collating all the data relevant to a group of machines and analyzing that data over time, we may be able to come up with a much more efficient and elegant solution.
We may start by gathering component information, part numbers, specific versions, installation, and maintenance dates. From there, we might add vendor information such as expected mean time between failure, recall or service notifications, and other relevant details. We might also add usage data, volumes produced, and peak demand times. Finally, we capture our own experiential data, what failed, when, under what environmental conditions, sensor data, etc.
By bringing all this data together and analyzing it, we may then be able to use a vibration sensor to accurately predict exactly which device may be nearing a failure point, and have the device proactively replaced due to wear and tear, rather than waiting for it to fail, or replacing otherwise perfectly serviceable parts.
In Part 3 of this Blog, we will discuss how Application Development and the Connected Worker can co-exist to enhance your operational environment.
Gathering other opinions, ideas, and insights can be invaluable in making your Connected Worker project successful. Charter’s extensive IT experience is available to assist you in finding a path forward.
Charter offers an array of capabilities to assist you in your Connected Worker journey. Here are some of the practices we have to assist you:
About the author
Ronnie Scott has over 35 years of broad IT experience, including programming, network architecture, as well as senior consultative roles for Financial Services, Internet Service Providers, ILEC Carrier Networks, and large enterprise customers across New Zealand, Australia, and Canada.
Ronnie is currently the CTO at Charter Telecom Inc, a Value-Added Reseller specializing in IT service delivery. As CTO, Ronnie brings his extensive technological background with a strong Business and Service Delivery lens to Enterprise IT Infrastructure solutions. bit.ly/3E9QdBk