Consumer wearables and smart clothing for fitness and health have often been compared to gym memberships; once the novelty of the new gadget fades so, too does the commitment to using it. Though definitive data remains to be seen, dozens of studies conclude that one-third of owners abandon their fitness wearables within six to 12 months, with up to 50% forgetting about them for extended periods — or altogether. This may partly explain why, at least in the U.S., the consumer wearables market has been advancing at a rate much slower than expected. ABI Research is just one of many insights firms forecasting the smart clothing market will top 31 million units shipped annually by 2021, but sees a decline after a peak in 2019 since consumer-grade products have few utilitarian purposes. Overall, though the worldwide wearables market will continue to gradually expand, IDC predicts it will take at least four years for the number of units shipped to double from the 113.2 million in 2017.
Replacing the canary in the coal mine
In contrast, wearable devices are finding more distinct and functional purposes among commercial industries. In a report from the research firm Tractica, which takes a business-focused and often conservative view of market opportunities, worldwide shipments for enterprise and industrial wearables are projected to increase exponentially from the 2.3 million units shipped in 2015 to 66.4 million predicted by 2021 — a tremendous jump in just six years. And it’s understandable, considering the need in helping to improve worker safety alone.
Up until the 1980s, the coal mining industry depended on canaries — song birds — to detect the presence of carbon monoxide and other toxic gases and provide an early warning to coal miners. It was a standard practiced for more than 50 years in the United States and Britain before digital technology enabled the “electronic nose.” Since its invention in 1982, some of the most advanced versions — worn on the wrist — are capable of detecting not only toxic gases, but also fire, light intensity, temperature, humidity and falls. A quantum leap for miners who work in conditions where suffocation and gas explosions are the foremost crisis, these smartwatches are quickly becoming the new standard for the mining industry of the 21st century.
Advancing the world’s first smart ring
Gartner recently reported that the sale of smartwatches alone will achieve nearly $17.4 billion of the total revenue potential among all wearables through 2021, indicating the growing popularity of these innovative devices. But wearables are nothing new when considering the 17th-century Chinese abacus ring, the world’s first smart ring that enabled bean counters to make mathematical calculations on one finger without the aid of pen and paper or the need for batteries. Thanks to advancing technologies, however, the abacus has evolved into an IoT device that can do far more than count heartbeats per minute and the number of steps an individual takes in a day. The newest incarnations include a panic button that sends an emergency alert to a predetermined response team. In fact, it’s that kind of wearable technology which has contributed to the burgeoning demand in precarious industries such as construction, biomedicine, manufacturing and transportation, where dangers from falls, heavy objects, liquids, chemicals and air-borne viruses pose a significant threat to human health.
Building a resilient workforce
In July 2017, enterprise wearables took center stage at the American Society of Safety Engineers Safety 2017 conference in Denver, Colo. Devices were put on display that have been designed to reduce workplace hazards and increase productivity. Devices focused sharply on the construction industry which, according to the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration, remains one of the most dangerous businesses in the world, accounting for nearly one in four U.S. work-related fatalities each year. Remarkable technologies were unveiled, including a wristband that receives audible or visual alarm signals from wireless beacons placed in locations to track movement of large machinery and define restricted or unsafe areas. With capabilities to warn workers while simultaneously alerting supervisors and first responders, experts from ConstructConnect, a leading provider of construction information in North America, predict wristbands and wearables embedded into apparel and personal protective equipment such as gloves, boots, hardhats and safety vests could prevent thousands of injuries and illnesses suffered on construction sites each year. But that’s not all. With the proliferation of intelligent and IoT-enabled watches, eyewear, bracelets, head gear and footwear, among other things, a new era of improved safety for workers across all industries is on the horizon.
Below are just a few of the many devices showing great potential to reduce costly accidents and save precious human life:
- Biometric wearables: Sensors embedded into clothing and accessories that monitor internal and external factors and can acquire information in real time to determine risks and send early warning signals. Tracking heart rate, body temperature and other vital signs, these devices can also monitor workers’ movements, repetitive motions and posture, as well as send alerts in the event of slips, falls, over-exhaustion or overheating.
- Global positioning systems (GPS) and location trackers: In addition to accurately locating employees’ positions and generating their trajectory, GPS and location trackers can set secure safe zones and send warnings when breached, thus keeping workers a safe distance from dangerous areas, as well as hazardous chemicals and substances. For the logistics industry, especially the transporting of dangerous products, these monitors can accurately track staff and goods to ensure timely arrivals and troubleshoot in the event of delays.
- Ruggedized smartphones: For industries where electrical, gas or chemical hazards, remote working conditions or extreme heat and cold present significant challenges, ruggedized smartphones provide an extra level of protection, with touchscreens and keyboards designed to function in extraordinary circumstances and respond to input through gloved hands. Outfitted with sensors and push-to-talk features, they allow seamless communication, monitoring and risk detection, with military-grade durability.
Providing a sense of well-being
Enabling IoT adoption and application across a wide range of devices, sensors are critical and central to the ongoing development and implementation of wearable technology. And if forecasts from the research firm IDTechEx are accurate, the worldwide sensor market estimated at $5 billion in 2018 will be driving a $160 billion market in 2028. No longer viewed as superfluous gadgets for fitness buffs and health fanatics, enterprise wearables will have the potential to reshape the workplace in every field, from science to agricultural.
Even as artificial intelligence and technology continue to advance, human nature hasn’t changed much since the invention of the first smart ring. At the root of some of mankind’s greatest achievements, the quest for simplicity, security, convenience and speed continue to drive us forward. Like the abacus — and the electronic nose — today’s enterprise wearables are offering workers the obvious benefits of improving productivity and reducing risks, but more important, they can empower workers with self-awareness. Armed with a sense of well-being and the motivation to make changes in their behavior, they’ll have the confidence to take charge of their health and surroundings — on the job and off.
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