Fisher Dynamics materials handler Alex Sigafoose Fisher Dynamics

Google Glass for the Shop Floor

In Michigan, a seating system and mechanisms manufacturer has turned to Google Glass to run parts of its floor more efficiently. Can you follow their lead and turn a formerly chic product into a useful tool?

ST. CLAIR SHORES, Mich. — Not long after a Google Glass prototype appeared on the face of Sergey Brin more than three years ago, the technology that has never been nearly as prevalent as Google probably wished started to be mocked, lampooned and dismissed by the general public. TechCrunch described its early “explorers” as “glassholes,” a writer for The New Yorker was told he looked like he had a nervous tic and a lazy eye while wearing a pair, "The Simpsons" and "The Daily Show" railed against its invasiveness, and The New York Times wondered earlier this year what went wrong after Google temporarily appeared to have shuttered the product.

None of that matters, though, on the Fisher Dynamics shop floors in St. Clair Shores, Mich. Critics have panned Glass for more popular and wider use, but in certain settings – like the medical and manufacturing industries – it still has tremendous potential. At Fisher, which manufactures engineered seating systems and mechanisms about 20 miles northeast of downtown Detroit, a number of employees recently started to wear Glass in an effort to operate more efficiently and, perhaps in the near future, more safely, too.

“Our initial motivation was that we were looking to improve the process of scanners getting lost, left behind, and run over,” said Scott Tollafield, director of information technology for Fisher & Company, “and moving it all to wearable.”

The Fisher family has owned and operated the company for more than 50 years and has “always been fairly progressive,” Tollafield said, which has meant a steady stream of new technology. “In the early ’90s, we looked at a wrist-mounted scanner wired to a pair of glasses with built-in information. There was just too much extensive programming required to make that do anything we needed it to do. (Glass) is leaps and bounds beyond that, obviously.”

No wires, for starters. Better technology partner, too.

Fisher has worked with Plex Systems for the last six years, including on this Glass project. The initial relationship focused on streamlining systems that needed to be connected and upgraded, then on transitioning to cloud computing. “We didn’t go out looking for it,” Tollafield said, “but it happened to come along with the package.”

Tollafield joined Jerry Foster, chief technology officer at Plex, and Barrie Vince, a senior software engineer there, one recent Wednesday afternoon in an upstairs conference room overlooking one of the six floors of Fisher’s main campus. They were all there to talk about Glass, and how the companies had worked together to implement it in a relatively short time, just a couple of months from its April introduction to its standardization now.

Vince brought four pairs of Glass from his personal tinkering collection – all of them outfitted with safety goggles, not a standard feature – then everybody slipped them over their eyes and headed downstairs.

Out on the floor

“You can talk about what the screen is and all that, but until you actually see it, you can’t really apply a practical solution,” Tollafield said. “I thought starting with an existing function like what the scanners do was a good idea.”

Material handlers and morning supervisors have used Glass most often so far, and the existing function Tollafield opted to focus on with Plex was scanning products. Fisher and Plex have paired Glass with a wearable fingertip scanner that straps to the wrist and the index finger and allows for relative hands-free scanning. No more handheld scanner, no more checking whether bar codes registered, no more wasted seconds.

If you’ve never worn Google Glass or comparable smart glasses, they fit like a standard pair of eyeglasses or safety goggles, except with a bulkier top frame and a small sensor over your right eye. Slide your finger over the right side of the frame and that sensor will display whatever various information is loaded in. Your eyes might strain and your vision might be altered the first time or two you wear them.

At Fisher, when the wearable scanner is used, an alert will flash near that right eye sensor, letting the user know instantly whether the code was entered. Because that alert is in natural peripheral vision, there’s no need to check a separate screen, and there’s little head movement, too.

“As you get used to it, you’re scanning without having to make a movement,” Vince said. “If you do something wrong, if you scan the wrong data identifier, it’s telling you right away, ‘Scan again.’ And if you have a color-coded key” – say, green for a successful scan, red for a failed one – “you’re just kind of glancing at the colors. Quick feedback, a little eye glance to see in your periphery if it’s good or bad without looking away.”

Tollafield and Vince said they estimate each hands-free scan is about a second faster than the more traditional hand-held scan. That might not sound like much time – until you consider Fisher scans thousands of bar codes every shift. If one person scans 2,000 codes in an eight-hour shift and trims one second with each, that works out to more than 33 minutes per day.

Glass is also used to monitor floor efficiency at a glance, and almost exclusively with colors. A handful of iBeacon sensors – originally  Apple-developed technology – are spread across the floor. If you’re wearing connected Glass and walk into each iBeacon’s cone, you’ll receive notification about whether the corresponding work station is running efficiently (green), adequately (yellow) or poorly (red).

Tollafield said Fisher is exploring expanded use of the technology, including for its maintenance workers, who could access instructions, troubleshoot and correspond with others on Glass. “We’re able to start thinking about other features we could build in that aren’t existing functions, but are new functions,” he said.

Security, safety and the next technology

There are, of course, security and safety issues with Glass. If a pair is unsecured, it can potentially access information from various devices around it, like cell phones and tablets, and information from texts to emails to calendars can flash across the display of those never meant to read them. And there is the noted concern of whether they might distract those wearing them from the surrounding environment.

At Fisher, one production material handler who has worn Glass for more than two months said it took him about two days to adjust to the altered view before he fully adapted. “I liken it to getting married,” Tollafield said. “You have to get used to wearing that ring. It was different for a while, and now, after a certain amount of time, it’s just there.”

Plex has started to implement Glass for other customers, and should be able to determine by the end of the third quarter whether this version of the technology will be the one promoted for wider use, or whether “we decide that this was a great first iteration and start work on what comes next,” Foster said.

What might come next? Just raise your wrist and imagine a floor-friendly Apple Watch. Stay tuned.

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