We have the technology … why not wear it?

As the wearable technology market continues to grow, we round up a few of the newest and most innovative articles of attire intended to boost safety and productivity in construction.

Lending a bionic hand

Ekso Bionics’ Zero-Gravity Arm aims to make operating heavy hand-held machinery easier and safer. The company gained its rep producing exoskeletons—wearable robotic aids for soldiers and the partially paralyzed—and is now branching out into bionics for the construction trades.

Ekso’s new Zero G arm renders power tools (up to 36 pounds) virtually weightless. Though exoskeleton technology takes some getting used to, noted a Wired reviewer, the effect is to enhance the user’s strength, mobility, and endurance. The system works on the same principle as the Steadicams used in Hollywood, swiveling about on springs and counterweights. The bionic arm also absorbs the powerful feedback produced by power tools, reducing strain on the worker.

When put to the test (see video below), a worker using the zeroG arm completed a jobsite task not only faster, but with more accuracy and much less fatigue. Meanwhile, a worker using the traditional method tired sooner, and took far longer to complete the task:

(For a less polished but more comprehensive video exploration of the Zero G Arm, check out Marko Kaar’s review.)

Tactical textiles

In Britain, more than 10,000 insurance claims have been made for vibration white finger and carpal tunnel syndrome over the past decade, according to the British Health and Safety Executive. That’s a cost of £20 million to £250 million (or roughly $25 million to $322 million). And these conditions result from continuous operation of vibrating hand-held machinery.

Seeking to combat these permanent industrial diseases, a new wearable technology being developed at Nottingham Trent University in the UK warns construction workers when a hand injury is imminent. The e-gloves, not much bulkier than average heavy-duty work gloves, are embedded with tiny sensors that warn workers when they’re exposed to dangerous levels of vibration.

Only 2 millimeters long, the sensors are imbedded into a yarn textile and knitted into the gloves. The seemingly simple technology performs an impressive safety duty. When triggered by dangerous levels of vibration, these tiny sensors warn wearers to stop work.

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A prototype of the e-glove. (Photo courtesy of Nottingham Trent University)

Vested interest

Redpoint Positioning has developed an innovative safety vest that protects workers and has the potential to improve incident reporting, drive efficiency, and cut costs.

Embedded with Redpoint’s indoor GPS tracking system, this high-tech personal protective equipment (PPE) gives full visibility to jobsite operations. When a worker enters a designated “danger zone” on the jobsite, it triggers the vest’s flashing red lights and audio feedback, while managers receive customized digital data on the worker’s location. The data is tracked and logged to help manage on-site safety practices.

Redpoint calls the technology a “wireless safety net,” lending an integrated approach to PPE. Of course, some workers might chafe at the thought of being tracked, and it is important not to abuse the technology, said Gary Cunningham, recently retired as Suffolk’s national safety director. “It has to be a partnership,” Cunningham said, with the shared goal of reducing injuries.

But “if you’re afraid of a tracking device,” said Suffolk Senior Safety Manager Joe Villela, “throw away your cell phone!” At 1700 Webster in Oakland, Villela gave workers radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to wear. “The whole point is safety,” he said. “In case of a catastrophic event, such as an earthquake—which on the West Coast we know is not a matter of if but when—we can make sure everyone is out of the building.”

The RFID tags, from Trimble, were effective, though they weren’t as flashy (literally) as the Redpoint vests:

A step forward for construction footwear

SolePower founder Hahna Alexander was recognized by Toyota’s “Mothers of Invention” female entrepreneurs’ series. Her innovation: generating electricity through footsteps. Alexander found a way to harvest kinetic energy from the human motion of a heel hitting the ground. The energy then transfers into a mechanical system, which, in turn, uses it to spin a micro-generator. In simple terms, human energy fuels kinetic chargers, providing a better, lighter power source.

This power source, when placed inside the back of a work boot, wirelessly gathers data and measures worker safety, efficiency, and productivity. The SmartBoot technology promises to keep workers safe, fit, and productive, and could be valuable on a worksite in lowering accident rates, tracking hours and monitoring workers’ locations in the event of an emergency. In turn, these incredible Smartboots could save money, lives and time, and improve incident reporting accuracy on the jobsite.

This post was written by Suffolk’s Insurance Coordinator Lindsay Davis. Content Writer Patrick Kennedy contributed additional reporting. If you have questions, Lindsay can be reached at ldavis@suffolk.com and Patrick can be reached at pkennedy@suffolk.com, or you can connect with him on LinkedIn here or Twitter at @PK_Build_Smart.

High tech, low bar

No learning curve with these AEC innovations

Your workload is big enough already. You don’t want to spend a lot of time learning how to use a new tool. Of course, the up-front investment of time should translate into time savings down the road. Yet the reluctance to learn something new, along with other factors, can pose a big barrier to tech adoption.

So it’s welcome news when an innovation promises to improve practices or workflow without requiring a day to figure out how to use it. In that vein, we take a look at some new products with potential. These advances in familiar technology aim to improve upon things you already use, whether in the office, trailer, or job site.

A VR vision, easy to view

“For a technology to crack the mainstream,” wrote the New York Times in January, “there is an unspoken understanding: It shouldn’t make the people who use it want to throw up.” And yet, the Times reported, at the International CES trade show in Las Vegas, the presenters of one 3D headset made barf bags available to users, just in case. It seems that wearing virtual reality goggles can be not only disorienting but sometimes literally nauseating.

A new app called Building Conversation removes these barriers by putting virtual and augmented reality on a tablet or smart phone. Imagine an architect and a developer standing at the edge of an empty lot. The architect simply hands over an iPad; the developer aims it at the site; and a 3D vision of the tower appears on the screen, overlaid atop the real-life view. If their meeting takes place instead in a boardroom, the tablet can be pointed at the table, where, through the screen, a holographic model of the building appears. A contractor and subcontractor can use the app to virtually walk through a model of the building. In whichever mode users select, they can pan through or around the image as they move. No goggles—or barf bag—required.

There’s less of a “wow” factor than with an immersive headset, but the image is clear enough and the ease of use can’t be beat. Plus, by allowing stakeholders to literally share the vision, passing the tablet back and forth and looking at the same 3D image together, this twist on VR/AR technology brings back the human interaction that is essential in project development.

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