From headsets to gloves to fabric sensors, technologies that can be worn on the body are providing many new benefits for plant workers
Apace with innovations in all “smart” technologies, wearable devices for industrial personnel are rapidly evolving to incorporate enhanced connectivity, bioresponsive behavior, augmented reality and more.
Expanding what we see
In chemical plants, engineers and operators often must perform inspection and measurement tasks in cramped, dark or dangerous locations. Now, a new device developed by a team of researchers from the Rolls-Royce University Technology Center (UTC) in Manufacturing and On-Wing Technology at the University of Nottingham (www.nottingham.ac.uk/utc), in cooperation with Rolls-Royce plc (Derby, U.K.; www.rolls-royce.com), aims to make these activities safer and more effective by enabling users to “see” with their hands. The EyeGlove system (Figure 1) comprises several tiny cameras mounted on the fingertips of a glove, along with a connected headset that can directly display inspection and measurement results.
“Conventional inspection tools, such as borescopes and endoscopes, usually have long passive sections, which are difficult to control in complex environments. Thanks to the flexibility and dexterity of human hands and arms, the EyeGlove’s finger-mounted cameras can be easily controlled and posed,” explains Dragos Axinte, director of the Rolls-Royce UTC. “Furthermore,” says Axinte, “three high-power LED lights complement the cameras, making the EyeGlove adaptable for use in dark environments.”
“By wearing the EyeGlove system, operators’ hands can be freed to hold and manipulate repair tools, such as spanners, files and rasps, or other inspection tools, such as ultrasonic or eddy-current probes. This enables operators to accomplish more tasks at the same time,” adds Xin Dong, associate professor at the University of Nottingham. The research team, led by Axinte, has demonstrated prototype EyeGlove systems in several confined scenarios, such as turbine engines and pipelines (Figure 2), and tested measurement accuracy in different lighting conditions.
“In addition to confined environments, large-scale open areas are widely encountered in chemical plants, such as large vessels and high distillation units. Inspection in these spaces requires operators to climb above the ground, and it is difficult to bring a large and cumbersome inspection system. The EyeGlove system can be used to assist operators to easily inspect these spaces because of its flexibility and light weight,” adds Erhui Sun, a research associate who originally developed the system.
Headsets and smart glasses can also provide “hands-free” access to process and equipment data beyond what the eye can see when in the field, but it is crucial that these devices are not too bulky or uncomfortable to wear. Rather, they should fit seamlessly with an engineer’s typical personal protective equipment (PPE). The Visor-EX 01 smart glasses (Figure 3), developed by ECOM Instruments GmbH, a Pepperl+Fuchs brand (Assamstadt, Germany; www.ecom-ex.com), were designed with wearability in mind by minimizing the amount of weight that must be balanced directly on the head. “By outsourcing much of the components for computing and energy supply to our Smart-Ex 02 smartphone and a pocket unit on the body, the Visor-Ex 01 glasses weigh just 180 g — unrivalled in industrial smart glasses,” says Sebastian Kaul, product portfolio manager at ECOM Instruments. With the connected smartphone, users can seamlessly switch between tasks during activities that require additional information or continuous communication. A voice-command function also leaves hands free and adds freedom of movement, notes Kaul. “The intrinsically safe Visor-Ex 01 smart glasses are the first device of their kind to be certified according to ATEX and IECEx standards,” he adds. During the development phase, the glasses underwent an extensive endurance test on an offshore oil platform. “With the help of cameras and image processing, QR codes from devices and machines could be read to gain access to sensor data, such as pump pressure. Our smart glasses improved the documentation of incidents not only quantitatively, but also qualitatively.”
Geolocation and mapping
A new frontier for wearable technologies is in mapping, location and scanning applications. The NavVis VLX wearable mobile mapping system (Figure 4) developed by NavVis GmbH (Munich, Germany; www.navvis.com) is said to enable up to 10 times faster data capture than terrestrial laser scanners, even in complex outdoor environments like chemical plants and petroleum refineries. “This makes it possible for projects to capture larger areas at earlier project phases,” explains Nate Bridges, senior account executive at NavVis. The NavVis VLX captures data in three dimensions using two multi-layer light-detection and ranging (LiDAR) sensors and a proprietary simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) algorithm to develop point clouds (Figure 5). Whereas other scanning tools require significant training for users, the NavVis VLX system has built-in features to help mitigate human errors during data capture, and is compatible with industry-standard tools, adds Bridges. “The versatility offered by a wearable laser scanner like NavVis VLX allows the user to capture more complete datasets in some of the most complex environments while obtaining highly accurate point-cloud data and panoramic imagery, all without having as many personnel on site.”
The NavVis VLX has been used in plants during conceptual planning, model verification, maintenance and turnarounds. “Turnaround management groups are utilizing NavVis VLX technology to digitalize their turnaround planning, and inspections divisions are managing their inspection points using 3D data captured with NavVis VLX,” says Bridges. Henkel AG (Düsseldorf, Germany; www.henkel.com) used NavVis’ technologies to create a complete digital copy of a manufacturing facility in Serbia, which engineers could remotely “visit” for inspection, optimization and training activities. This virtual plant was made possible by the use of wearable and wheel-mounted mapping systems.
Monitoring worker safety and health is one of the key drivers behind advancements in wearable devices. The Safety Watch real-time location-monitoring solution (RTLS) from Honeywell Process Solutions (HPS; Phoenix, Ariz.; process.honeywell.com) aims to help mitigate operational and safety risks by using radio-frequency identification (RFID) to monitor employee assigned location and fatigue, and identify when an employee enters a restricted area. Beyond employee health, the Smart Watch’s geolocation capabilities provide benefits for security and emergency response, says Veronica Turner, industrial safety solutions leader for Latin America at HPS. “The old method of emergency mustering is that employees needed to approach a mustering area, and they typically would have to swipe their badge to get accounted. With this solution, they just need to approach the area and then a receiver will get the signal from their specific device and count them,” she notes. According to Honeywell, Smart Watch use can reduce mustering time by up to 80% when compared to more manual processes. This functionality is especially useful during major events, such as turnarounds, when there could be hundreds of additional contractors on site who must be accounted for. For security, the platform can implement “virtual walls” within a plant site to minimize the number of people entering hazardous areas, or to ensure that there is no unauthorized entry to sensitive locations. “The platform can quickly create geo-fencing that can immediately start giving alerts based on company protocols. There is a lot of flexibility — you can block an area for a few hours during maintenance work, or you can permanently block certain areas,” notes Turner. For personnel health and safety, the devices can detect falls, and include a “panic button” that sends a notification in the event of a serious incident.
The industrial metaverse
A category of wearable devices that has been quickly gaining ground in industrial applications is headsets that support virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) technology platforms. Such headsets are just one facet in the burgeoning industrial “metaverse” — a term essentially encompassing the collaborative and connected, persistent virtual environment enabled by 3D digital twins. “People are getting somewhat hard-wired that when we use the word ‘metaverse,’ that means we wear a headset,” says Simon Bennett, global head of innovation and incubation at Aveva (Cambridge, U.K.; www.aveva.com). “But that’s not how we perceive it at all. We think that we should be able to enter the metaverse on our laptop, phone or tablet as well, because the value of the metaverse is about connecting people and data.”
Chemical processing facilities can benefit greatly from the virtual nature of the industrial metaverse because of the massive volumes of data that are constantly being collected, as well as the hazardous and sensitive nature of the products and processes that are encountered. “Every single item within a chemical processing environment is a live machine or process that needs to be tracked, and we should be able to interact with the data feeds coming from it,” adds Bennett. “The metaverse provides an opportunity for specialists to meet together in a 3D space, but not a 3D space like a conference room. The 3D space is their actual asset.”
In Aveva’s industrial metaverse concept, people are able to enter a 3D model of a running chemical plant and interact with the assets (Figure 6). “It’s really different and a much more natural collaboration between people when you’re in the 3D space. Neither of us have left our chair, but we are manifesting in a version of the actual operating asset,” says Bennett. Safety considerations are obviously a huge factor when considering virtual collaboration, because no travel or special site certifications will be required to access an asset. “I don’t need any safety certificates to fly my avatar to the top of a flare stack when I’m in the metaverse because there’s no physical risk to me. There are definitely some opportunities to bring more expertise into high-risk environments more quickly,” he adds.
However, a major hurdle for implementation of the industrial metaverse is overcoming preconceived notions about VR headsets. Bennett believes that headsets will become more ubiquitous among the younger workforce, citing a study that Aveva carried out with the University of Milan (www.unimi.it) looking at how chemical engineering and industrial-chemistry students benefitted from complementing their traditional education with virtual “visits” to simulated industrial environments. According to Bennett, the study found that students who had the more experiential aspect of using the headsets scored around 60 to 70% better than students who did not use headsets. “When you actually experience something, versus just reading about it, it’s much more solid in your memory for recalling later. So, there is definite evidence that using headsets with full VR, specifically in the context of industrial chemists, has real value for them when they enter the workforce.”
Advanced functional materials
Progress in materials research and development is helping to expand the applicability of wearable technologies and overcome some of the challenges in designing functional wearables for industrial use.
Dynamic pressure changes are a major hurdle in developing wearable sensors. As the wearer goes about their everyday tasks, the pressure on any device they are wearing is frequently changing, which can interrupt the flow of data from the sensor. Now, a new method of vapor-printing enables pressure-sensing fabrics with integrated piezoionic materials, which redistribute ions throughout the sensor, effectively turning any mechanical motion into an electrical signal that can be monitored. Developed at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s (www.umass.edu) Wearable Electronics Laboratory, this is said to be the first fabric-based sensor that allows real-time monitoring. “Fabric pressure sensors are useful in industrial PPE to indicate if a pressure threshold has been exceeded. For example, the destructive pressure from exceeding a recommended grip strength while moving or operating inventory or equipment in industrial settings,” explains Trisha L. Andrew, director of the Wearable Electronics Laboratory. According to work published in Advanced Materials Technologies, this also represents the first fabric-based sensor that enables personalized real-time analysis of grip strength. Applications of the pressure sensors include capturing physiological signals in loose-fitting garments and gait in footwear, says Andrew. The sensors also feature a special coating to protect against humidity, meaning that fabrics can be easily laundered.
In another example of functional materials for wearables, scientists are using the de novo computational protein-design approach to develop new biosensors that can detect hazards and toxins. According to Fiorenzo Omenetto, dean for research and professor of engineering at Tufts University (Medford, Mass.; www.tufts.edu), the sensors represent a confluence of biomaterials (in this case a regenerated silk fibroin) and de novo protein constructs that can be reassembled into several wearable end formats while maintaining the protein’s functionality. For this work, the team was able to fabricate the bioresponsive materials into a printable ink, wherein the protein constituent could be designed to respond to particular molecules of interest with high selectivity and specificity. The biosensor is programmed to glow when it detects its target molecule, and the intensity of light emission can be used to gauge the concentration. In addition to inks, the materials platform can be adapted into films, sponges, filters and more. The biosensors are also more durable than many existing methods for detecting pathogens or chemicals in the environment, since they require no biological components that can quickly degrade or electronic components that are difficult to integrate into wearable devices.
“We fabricated a set of functional demonstrator devices, including bio-responsive PPE, such as masks and laboratory gloves,” says Omenetto. A key benefit for this materials platform is its versatility. In addition to the PPE demonstrations, the team has developed a bioresponsive drone prototype for air-quality monitoring. Such demonstrations, says Omenetto, are meant to illustrate the expanded utility and ease of fabrication for these sensing interfaces, even when targeting hard-to-detect variables. The Institute for Protein Design at the University of Washington (Seattle; www.ipd.uw.edu) engineered the proteins that the Tufts team incorporated into the devices. ■