Wearables in the enterprise? Yes, really!

Think wearables are just a consumer fad? Think again. Here’s how companies like DHL, Lee Company and Southern Co. are making a business case for wearables.

wearables opener primary idge
Credit: Keoni Cabral / Flickr

Once upon a time, the only people who had computers embedded in their eyeglasses, watches or rings were TV spies and big-screen secret agents. Now, wearables are exploding in the marketplace, which means people outside the world of espionage can expect these technologies to help them in their jobs, too.

Employers in a wide range of vertical markets are already piloting and deploying wearables in targeted ways, according to analysts, researchers and IT leaders.

Doctors and nurses are using smart eyewear for hands-free access to patients' medical records. Oil rig workers use smart helmets to connect with land-based experts, who can view their work remotely and communicate instructions specific to the case. Warehouse managers capture real-time performance data to a smartwatch to better manage distribution and fulfillment operations.

"These are all things that can make somebody much more efficient, make them do their jobs better," says Maribel Lopez, principal and founder of Lopez Research, a mobile market research firm based in San Francisco. Adopting wearables "is about productivity and efficiency right now."

Wearables may be gaining ground on the factory floor and in the field, but what about in the average office setting? Knowledge workers thus far haven't shown much movement in integrating smart devices into their work lives, beyond their tablets, smartphones and smartwatches. But that isn't stopping enthusiasts from predicting that wearables will make their way into enterprises everywhere -- eventually.

"The message we've been touting for the last few years is that the 'enterprisification' is going to be the story for wearables," says Bill Briggs, CTO at Deloitte Consulting. The top winners will be companies that can find specific reasons to use wearables in a way that transforms business processes. "What real business problems can you solve?" he asks.

The wearables transformation isn't about 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, enhance and amplify" business processes, Briggs says. That in turn means leveraging other emerging technologies such as the cloud, the Internet of Things and analytics to deliver real-time insights.

Read on to find out how companies like DHL, Lee Company and Southern Co. are doing just that -- and in the process, turning wearables from fiction into fact.

DHL: 'Vision picking' via smart eyewear

While enterprise use of wearables is still in its early stages, certain industries -- notably logistics, retail, healthcare and companies with large numbers of field workers -- are emerging as early adopters, says Erik Brown, a director in West Monroe Partners' technology practice in Chicago.

They're finding that wearables 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.

FedEx Ground set an early lead in the wearables space. For more than a decade, the shipping company has deployed ring scanners in the field; these radio-frequency-enabled devices deliver data to workers on package sorting, and pickup and delivery, allowing them to move packages more efficiently, according to Matthew Berardi, vice president of operations technology at the shipping firm.

Global logistics company DHL is piloting the use of augmented reality in a warehouse in the Netherlands. Working with Ricoh, the imaging and electronics company, and Ubimax, a wearable computing services and solutions company, DHL is implementing "vision picking" in its warehousing operations, with location graphics displayed on smartglasses guiding staffers through the warehouse to both speed the process of finding items and reduce errors. The company says the technology delivered a 25% increase in efficiency.

DHL vision picking wearables

At DHL, smartglasses display for employees the exact location of items they need to retrieve from warehouse shelves.  

The company had been using wrist scanners and voice headsets for well over a decade, says Adrian Kumar, DHL's vice president of solutions design for North America, but smartglasses take the technology to the next level. Specifically, eyewear is superior to other devices, such as holstered RF guns or smartphones, in delivering visuals and directions to workers as they're trying to navigate aisles and look for items.

Right now, vision picking gives workers locational information about the items they need to retrieve and allows them to automatically scan retrieved items. Forthcoming improvements will allow the system to plot out optimal routes through the warehouse, provide pictures of items to be retrieved (a key aide in case an item has been misplaced on the warehouse shelves) and instruct workers on loading carts and pallets in an optimized way.

DHL plans to expand its Netherlands pilot to North American sites, says Kumar. The company has selected a retail fashion operation, which has a complex picking process where multiple orders are picked simultaneously, as the first U.S. site. The pilot is expected to begin in April.

Lee Company: Sharing expertise, collecting data

Lee Company, which provides home and commercial building services, such as plumbing and electrical work, has deployed wearables to its frontline technicians who work in the commercial side of the business and is piloting them in the residential and construction groups.

The company is using Vuzix M100 Smart Glasses bundled with XOEye's custom applications that enable telepresence and real-time communications, among other functions. The company started piloting the glasses in the summer of 2014, with a full rollout starting this past January. It expects to have about two-thirds of the planned 500 devices deployed by this summer.

Lee Company wearables

At Lee Company, technicians in the field use smartglasses and customized software to get guidance from senior personnel offsite.  

The smartglasses allow technicians on job sites who need additional support to connect back to more experienced technicians in the company's triage center, explains Steve Scott, vice president of facilities solutions.

The glasses allow those senior technicians to see the same equipment that the on-site workers see, and they can transmit additional information about the facilities. This flow of information saves the experienced personnel from having to drive from job site to job site to provide support, making the whole team more efficient and keeping clients' downtime to a minimum. And, unlike tablets and smartphones, the smartglasses let the workers keep their hands free to perform the actual work.

"We can FaceTime on our phones or Skype, but those aren't safe [hands-free] options. We need something safe and with good audio. Glasses seemed like a great option," Scott says.

He notes that data collected via wearables is integrated with the company's custom-built client service platform, which allows both the company and its clients to track service and view other related information.

Lee Company declined to disclose its investment in the technology, but Scott says it's paying off.

"We can handle more calls, we can better support technicians, and our customers are happier," he says, adding that this model also helps the company retain seasoned, highly experienced personnel who wanted to retire from the physical demands of on-site work.

Southern Co.: Real-time notifications from machinery-in-need

Southern Co., an Atlanta-based energy company, is experimenting with several different wearables, primarily in its power plants and its power distribution and transmission pipeline.

"We believe wearables will be of particular benefit in situations where employees work with their hands and cannot utilize traditional computer interfaces -- our linemen and plant personnel, for example," says Joe Massari, the company's enterprise technology planning manager.

Southern recently experimented with both head-mounted and wrist-mounted computers, and performed "several proofs of concept with Google Glass, Apple Watch and the Moto 360 Android Wear device," Massari reports. "The proofs of concept were focused mainly on enhancing plant workers' ability to follow documented procedures more accurately and to document adherence to those procedures," he explains.

The company also piloted head-worn Bluetooth video cameras for documenting work processes and for videoconferencing between field personnel and central office personnel. That pilot, carried out by the company's Engineering & Construction Services unit, was considered a success: Southern Co. now uses head-worn cameras in some plants and field locations.

Massari sees more applications for wearable technology on the horizon. For example, he says a wearable device with a notification-based user interface might alert a worker in real time when he or she gets close to a piece of equipment that needs attention.

"The technology certainly exists to perform these sorts of functions. We are currently piloting iBeacon technology that is able to locate a worker's proximity to a piece of equipment containing a beacon and then respond. This iBeacon technology could be combined with wearable technology to create the sort of use case described," he says.

Like other IT leaders, Massari says his company's exploration of wearables certainly ties into the consumer excitement around such devices. But, he stresses, the company will go all-in only when it finds the right business-focused use cases that will deliver strong ROI.

That's an approach that makes sense to wearables watchers like Deloitte's Briggs. "The real crux of it is, can you use these new form factors to support the business in ways you couldn't before?"

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