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Context-aware tech, part 3: What are the hurdles to adoption, and what's next?

Here’s what context-aware tech looks like today and what it means for asset management in your plant.

By Christine LaFave Grace, managing editor

That familiar combo of financial and cultural issues has held the brakes on adopting context-aware tech for some manufacturers.

From a financial perspective, the expectation is that as early adopters prove out their business cases and the technologies themselves become not only less costly but more durable and sophisticated, cost-based hesitancy to adopt will decline. The cultural issue is another matter.

David Miller, senior safety director at Advanced Technology Services (ATS), has seen it firsthand as a service provider. “When you take an existing technology and migrate it to another industry, they’re a little slow on the uptake,” he says. “The technology on forklifts today – you can buy a system that tracks the forklifts, has an accelerometer that tells you where it’s been impacted; you can see where you’ve got an accident; it will do automatic checklists – but a lot of companies still haven’t done that.” As with other technologies, Miller notes, “They’ve been doing it (one) way for 30 years, and it’s worked for them for 30 years, why try something different?”

But companies face a blind spot, according to Keywell, if “they’re thinking about today or yesterday rather than thinking about one year or five years from now.”

And vision problems are preventing some manufacturers from grasping what’s already out there, available, and in use – or how it relates to technologies they’re already familiar with, IFS’ Veague says.

Sometimes I get blank looks in the sense that it sounds like ‘Star Wars’ ... (yet) those same people are wearing Fitbits on their arms.”

– Rick Veague, IFS

“Sometimes I get blank looks in the sense that it sounds like ‘Star Wars’ – it’s off in the future someplace,” says Veague. “Yet at the same time, those same people are wearing Fitbits on their arms; they’re wearing Apple smartwatches; they’re carrying smartphones that give you access to virtually anything anywhere in the world at any time.”

The challenge Veague sees is to help manufacturers understand that the same types of context-aware technologies, applied in the industrial space, can give unprecedented insights (also available anywhere, at any time) into some of the most cost-intensive assets and equipment in a facility. Pull up the ID for an asset, either in a control room, via a mobile device, or by scanning the asset on-site, and “just by looking at it, all of a sudden you have full awareness of the maintenance history about that,” he says.

Moreover, the technology itself isn’t prohibitively complex, Small asserts. “I think maybe the biggest misperception – and maybe it was a correct perception five or six years ago, but it isn’t true today – is that it’s complicated, that it requires experts to install and experts to maintain and it’s not yet a mainstream type of technology that most people will feel comfortable with.” With ID tags and other context-aware technologies, “We’ve got people from very high-tech manufacturing environments like freescale semiconductor manufacturing inside of a clean room to very dirty types of operations like underground mines keeping workers safe,” he adds.

Seegrid’s Spang and Wiesner see their own company as well as others in the tech and manufacturing space just scratching the surface in terms of what context-aware technologies can do.

“As we change our approach and our view of how data streams could be used for other applications, I think you start to unlock it,” Wiesner says.

Bentley’s Huie has a vision for making asset management even smarter by going beyond 3D modeling tech to 4D: “Imagine adding a fourth dimension to the reality mesh so that you can, for example, flip back or forward through time to understand the asset as it has evolved,” he says. This perspective, he says, could help you identify precisely when, for instance, a crack in a bridge or a vessel occurred, and help you understand its causes.

Veague offers this advice for businesses trying to get their arms around context-aware tech: “I really believe that in context-aware, whether it’s wearables or IoT kinds of things, the most important project you can do is your first one. Once you experiment and you do some basic things, I think it becomes very clear where the real business drivers are and how to drive business benefit using context-aware technologies.”

Enabling smarter real-time decisions and business projections based on better (not just more, but better) data is what context awareness is all about, Veague and Keywell hold. “You can’t simply look at dashboards about the past,” Keywell says. “You have to figure out ways to look into the future.”

Part 1: What does it look like, and what's it worth to my company?
Part 2: Who's leading the charge?