Complete Guide to the Connected Worker

Written by: Dirk Schart
1/9/2024

Read Time: 17 min

This blog was co-written with Sumair Dutta and Matt DiCecca.

Key takeaways:

  • The “connected worker” is connected with people, products and processes to access critical information, improve collaboration, and enable knowledge sharing by leveraging digital technologies and mobile devices
  • Companies can lean into emerging technologies enabling the connected worker starting with resources that they already have, such as CAD models, PLM data, and IIoT devices.
  • Companies that already employ the Connected Worker model report that the connected worker works more safely and efficiently and has an improved sense of job satisfaction.

Overview of connected work

Digital tools and technologies like augmented reality (AR), artificial intelligence (AI), Internet-of-Things (IoT), and Industrial Connectivity help companies to connect their workforce with knowledge and processes to improve workforce efficiency. The connected future has vast implications for industry. A new generation of connected workers use these same technologies to work better and faster in safer and less stressful environments.

Meet the connected worker

Who is “the connected worker”? What digital technologies connect them and to what? Do digital technologies leave room for workers, connected or otherwise? There’s a lot to unpack in this concept. Some of what we know about the connected worker has already been proven, tried, and true in industry while some is still speculative.

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What is a connected worker?

We can think of the connected worker as a worker who is “connected” to the people, processes, and products that they need to do their job throughout the day. The connected worker doesn’t need to knock on office doors, dust off training manuals, or carry thick stacks of paper-based manuals – all of these things are available to the connected worker through hand-held or heads-up devices. Connected workers don’t only consume information, they feed manufacturing and service systems by sharing their expertise with others and improving products and processes by providing documentation and feedback.

People

The connected worker is connected to people – including teams, coworkers, supervisors and experts, and even customers – through remote collaboration and viewing technologies.

Through augmented reality technology and connectivity, a remote expert can see what the connected worker sees in real time and guide the connected worker through tasks or decisions. Similarly, a worker can remotely connect with a customer to troubleshoot issues and answer questions in a way that is more convenient and cost-effective than site visits or product returns over relatively simple issues.

Processes

Processes necessary to the connected worker are also available to them through mobile devices, improved enterprise collaboration and advanced technology, such as a digital mentor that “lives” on the worker’s smart device. These digital mentors are based on instructions and visual guidance trained with a company’s procedures and protocols and continuing to learn from interactions with human workers using artificial intelligence.

Digital mentors are instrumental in training new employees or training experienced workers to do new jobs, but far from being “just” an onboarding tool, digital mentors can serve as an institutional memory for a company, passing down accumulated knowledge and maintaining procedural continuity across distributed campuses.

Products

The technologies and tools of the connected worker connect them to the products that they are working on. Instead of a physical book or catalogue, information about products and systems is digitally stored on devices that are easier and more convenient for the connected worker to consult.

Viewed in augmented reality, monitored with real-time IoT data and connected and automated through connectivity solutions, these resources help the connected worker navigate around products, locate specific items and areas, and even address common issues in manufacturing and service.

What is the Importance of the connected worker in the digital era?

The digital era has made executives and customers alike used to having everything that they want or need immediately available to them – or at least available via overnight shipping. Unfortunately, the manufacturer, the assembly engineer, the warehouse worker – they can be caught in the middle. The reality is that frontline workers are often expected to perform today’s tasks at tomorrow’s speed with yesterday’s resources.

It could be that frontline workers are overlooked in this way because when many people think about the future of work their minds jump to automation. While some tasks – particularly dangerous and tedious but unskilled tasks – have been automated, the technology available today does more to enable workers than replace them. For the connected worker, the digital era presents an opportunity to meet challenges through access to the resources that they need at the right time and location and in the right context.

This includes information that they may have had access to in conventional workflows but that they would have needed to (literally) go out of their way to access - such as by consulting physical references or talking with experts. It also includes information that is delivered in real-time instead of being presented to them by a supervisor hours or days later. Finally, it includes information that might have been available but in a way that was not immediately actionable. Through augmented reality, new kinds of data and processes can be effectively visualized in ways that weren’t possible before.

What is a connected worker platform?

A connected worker platform is a comprehensive suite of digital solutions that empowers frontline workers and service technicians with digital information and instructions in a mobile-first approach. Digital technologies to connect, automate and visualize information enhance communication, collaboration, and productivity among workers.

It provides a hub where employees can access real-time information, collaborate with team members, and interact with digital tools to streamline tasks. Connected worker platforms leverage mobile devices, wearables, and other connected technologies to make information readily accessible, empowering workers to perform their duties more efficiently.

The evolution of connected worker platforms stems from the broader trend of Industry 4.0, which emphasizes the integration of digital technologies into manufacturing and industrial processes. As technology advanced, organizations sought ways to improve the agility and responsiveness of their workforce. The evolution also reflects a shift towards a more mobile and interconnected work environment, acknowledging the importance of real-time data and communication for frontline workers.

Evolution of connected worker platform

The evolution of cloud computing has further facilitated the storage and accessibility of large volumes of data generated by connected worker platforms, allowing for seamless integration and analysis.

In summary, a connected worker platform has evolved in response to the demands for increased mobility, real-time communication, and data-driven decision-making in various industries, driven by advancements in technology, Industry 4.0 principles, and the widespread adoption of emerging technologies and cloud computing.

The rise of mobile devices

Most frontline workers are deskless – in the field for service and in the factory for manufacturing. A modern workspace offers workers access to information and data on mobile devices instead of storing it on desktop stations or in paper-based documentation. Today’s workers are used to accessing their bank account or booking vacations on mobile phones and tablets. They expect the same comfort for their work tools. Manufacturing companies ensure high quality and efficiency by equipping their frontline workforce with a connected and mobile tool set.

Enabling connectivity and integrations

Any company can implement any one of these emerging technologies in any one part of its operation. However, when these technologies are used together across operations it creates a digital thread throughout a company. As part of the digital thread, digital twins of processes, facilities and equipment can be created and linked to their physical counterparts.

For a growing number of companies, this has already become the way to operate but many companies are still identifying their digital thread strategy. While the digital thread is becoming more prevalent - every customer journey is different, and implementation generally occurs in stages as new capabilities and technologies are added and adopted.

The digital thread serves as an authoritative source of product data, built on a foundation of CAD and PLM. It ensures that accurate, up-to-date, and contextual product data is available to enable frontline workers in manufacturing.

Digital work instructions

Digital work instructions for manufacturing and service are digital guides that provide information and step-by-step instructions to frontline workers, replacing traditional paper-based instructions. These instructions are accessible on mobile devices such as phones and tablets or smart glasses, offering a more dynamic and interactive experience.

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By leveraging digital work instructions, frontline workers can access real-time information, reducing the likelihood of errors and ensuring compliance with the latest standards. The multimedia capabilities of digital instructions allow for the integration of images, videos, and 3D models, enhancing comprehension and making complex tasks more accessible. Moreover, digital work instructions can feature interactive elements such as checklists for active engagement and facilitating learning on the job.

The use of digital work instructions contributes to increased efficiency and productivity as workers can quickly adapt to changing processes and easily reference relevant information.

Overall, the shift toward digital work instructions in manufacturing and service industries leads to a more streamlined, adaptable, and informed workforce.

Connected worker and digital transformation

Connected worker strategies play a crucial role in facilitating successful digital transformation for companies. First, these strategies necessitate the updating of processes to align with digital advancements, ensuring a seamless integration of technology into existing workflows. Second, comprehensive training programs for frontline workers are imperative, enabling them to adeptly navigate digital tools and platforms, fostering a workforce that is both skilled and confident in the new digital environment.

Connecting workers with people, products, and processes is a core tenet of a successful connected worker approach, breaking down information silos and promoting collaboration across various facets of the organization. Leveraging mobile devices is key, allowing frontline workers to access information on-the-go, enhancing efficiency and responsiveness. By adopting connected worker strategies, companies can create a cohesive ecosystem where information flows seamlessly, empowering the workforce to embrace and contribute to the digital transformation journey.

Benefits of the connected worker approach

The connected worker approach is one to be championed both for the benefit that it brings to the connected worker and for the benefit that it brings to the forward-thinking company. Developing this approach is an investment but it is one that pays off – particularly in the realms of safety, quality, job satisfaction, and efficiency.

Safety

Perhaps the biggest benefit of this approach is that the connected worker is safer than the traditional worker. Through augmented reality, information can be presented in a hands-free, heads-up way. This allows the worker greater situational awareness as well as greater mobility in the event that they need to respond to a situation quickly.

AR allows the connected worker access to information in a less obstructive way, but AI and IoT allow the connected worker access to more information. This can include easy-to-see and easy-to-understand indications of when machines might not be working properly. The ability to understand products and processes better in less time also has the potential to reduce workplace accidents.

Finally, the connected worker works in a safer workplace because the workplace is also connected. Managers and planners also have more data and new ways of understanding it. This can decrease downtime by ensuring that operations are running smoothly and machines are working at peak efficiency, but it can also maximize safety.

Efficiency

Yes, on the system level, a connected workplace can be safer and more efficient. But, on an individual level, the connected worker is more efficient than the traditional worker.

We’ve already seen how access to information can make the connected worker more efficient because resources can be called up more quickly and processed more naturally with augmented reality than with hardcopy references. We’ve also seen how access to remote experts and AI assistants can make the connected worker more autonomous and independent even when they need help with an issue.

Finally, automation – supporting and guiding the connected worker – is able to streamline those parts of the connected worker’s job that don’t always require their expertise and can be an unnecessary draw on their time. Tools like AI assistants and digital mentors provide assistance rather than competition to the connected worker so that they can spend more time on tasks that truly require their attention and care.

Workforce mobility

Connected workers significantly enhance workforce mobility by leveraging technology to improve communication, collaboration, and access to information. Firstly, through mobile devices, connected workers can access critical data, documents, and instructions from anywhere, reducing the constraints of a fixed workspace and allowing for greater flexibility in performing tasks on the go.

Secondly, real-time communication tools integrated into connected worker strategies facilitate instant collaboration among team members, irrespective of their physical location. This not only boosts efficiency but also enables quick decision-making and problem-solving, minimizing delays in the workflow.

Connected workers can more easily transition between different job sites or locations while maintaining a continuous flow of information. This is especially beneficial in industries where employees need to move between various work environments, such as manufacturing facilities, field service locations, or remote offices.

Job satisfaction

Safety and efficiency are already priorities of every respectable company and both of them contribute to job satisfaction. With the knowledge that they have the resources necessary to do their job and do it well, and that these resources are employed in a safer work environment, the connected worker enjoys greater job satisfaction than the traditional worker.

Offering a modern work environment with state-of-the-art work tools and equipment reduces the risk of people leaving the company. Manufacturing companies can leverage this to improve employee retention and overall job satisfaction, especially for younger generations and digital natives who are growing up with Apple, Amazon and Netflix while being forced to work with paper-based instructions at work.

Increased collaboration

Connected workers enhance collaboration by providing instant access to shared information and communication tools. Through connected platforms, team members can collaborate in real-time, breaking down geographical barriers and promoting a more dynamic exchange of ideas.

Integration of collaborative features such as video conferencing and document sharing facilitates seamless communication, fostering a sense of unity among dispersed teams. Centralized repositories of information ensure that all team members have access to the latest updates, reducing the risk of misunderstandings and errors. Additionally, connected worker solutions often enable task tracking and project management, streamlining collaborative efforts and enhancing overall productivity.

These benefits compound when we remember that job satisfaction contributes back into safety and efficiency. Workers who have the proper tools and work in the proper environment are less susceptible to boredom, stress, and burnout. When workers are free of burnout, they do a better job in less time with fewer errors. All of these factors contribute to high output, high quality, and low workplace accidents for companies that employ connected workers.

Technologies enabling the connected worker

IoT

The Internet of Things consists of networked devices, sensors, and software to collect data from Information Technology (IT) and Operational Technology (OT) systems, contextualize the data and turn it into meaningful insights for the right people, at the right time, in the right place. This orchestration of data helps people make insightful decisions in industrial or manufacturing settings.

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AR

Augmented reality consists of virtually imposing digital content over a view of the physical world. Because this is a visual and interactive way of engaging with information, this technology makes it easier to understand complex tasks and obtain knowledge faster.

AR makes work instructions and critical data available where it is needed and when it is needed. Visual guidance and remote assistance powered by AR can be accessed via mobile devices and AR headsets.

Role of AR in the connected worker concept

As we’ve seen, augmented reality is one of many converging technologies empowering the connected worker but it is among the most transformational. It is also among the most universally accessible.

Many augmented reality applications can run on smartphones. This may be the smartphones that employees already carry, or smartphones and tablets that they use during the day but that remain on the premises as necessitated by your company’s technological requirements and security concerns.

Augmented reality experiences can also be facilitated by head-worn devices that look more like glasses than a phone – though in many cases the glasses may use a phone or similar mobile computing device. This kind of hardware is more expensive and can add to the initial learning curve. However, once mastered, these devices can be used hands-free by the connected worker, who is also able to maintain better situational awareness than the connected worker using the same experiences on a hand-held device.

The increased adoption of head-worn devices within the enterprise has the natural effect of expanding and enhancing the availability of experiences and content.

Hardware manufacturers are also already scaling down the size of these devices. Many meant for the assembly floor work or service calls in rugged environments prioritize durability over aesthetics and remain quite large, but lighter-weight models can be expected to arrive for enterprise customers. Many also carry certifications necessary for workplace eye protection so that the connected worker isn’t fitting an AR headset over their safety goggles and prescription glasses.

AI

Artificial intelligence is more than just talking to a computer. In addition to being one of the foundational technologies behind augmented reality, AI is capable of quickly making sense of vast amounts of data. This can be helpful in the offices where new ways of doing things are being developed with the help of AI-identified trends to maximize efficiency.

That’s not to say that AI will only be helpful in the offices. In the hands of connected workers, AI can recognize locations, objects, and situations to summon information, suggest interactions, and even generate reports.

Connected workers in the product lifecycle

The connected worker can be employed in any field. Procedures and protocols can be different, but the same digital tools will help workers achieve different objectives. However, in many cases, they may be looking at the same information and instructions. In fact, it is possible to follow the digital thread from the design floor through the assembly line to the showroom all the way to solutions used by the end customer.

Connected worker in engineering

Engineering is always a pioneer of new technologies. It was true with steam, it was true with gasoline and electricity, it was true with computers, and it’s true with the connected worker – the main character in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Some of the key computer-driven engineering solutions of the past forty years continue to play an important role in more modern solutions.

Early CAD programs paved the way for 3D illustration and animation solutions like Creo Illustrate. Illustrate can in turn be used in Vuforia Studio to create step-by-step instructions and 3D animations specific to the needs of the individual organization and its individual workers.

More and more products are going through complete product cycles driven by augmented reality. AR recreates product ideation as designers are able to collaborate – remotely or in-person – on spatially constructed virtual models. These can be life-sized to give an accurate depiction of the product once it becomes a physical reality, or they can be larger-than-life allowing a magnified view of the smallest details before any money or materials are spent on a physical prototype.

Connected worker in manufacturing

Deliver digital work instructions with 3D data to frontline workers for assembly and fabrication, with connected tools and real time execution analysis for improved quality.

Digital tools transform day-to-day work with data connections, from receiving alerts on physical assets on the shop floor employees are working with, to historical knowledge repositories of best practices in continuous improvement. By connecting the frontline worker to the data they need, we empower them to take action themselves and problem solve in real time. IoT software like ThingWorx enables the connected workers with real time data on asset health, quality control and critical alerts. Also providing information on the manufacturability of the product, as planned versus as built.

Product data and work instructions can be handed off seamlessly from one worker to another along the product lifecycle – from engineering to manufacturing and service. For example, content from programs like Creo, Windchill and ThingWorx can be used in Vuforia. The virtual production models become the same models that the connected worker is trained on or that they refer to when they run into questions on the assembly floor.

By incorporating other emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, 3D models are more to the connected worker than virtual reference images. AI can use these models to accelerate product familiarization and onboarding guiding workers through new and complex tasks, and even helping to automate report generation and filing. Nearly every task on the modern worker's to-do list is either crossed off or expedited by the tools of the connected worker.

Collaborating across the organization has never been more attainable. We empower the connected worker to source critical information and mobile solutions allow to document tasks and feed data back to engineering. Digital connected worker technologies capture the manufacturability of the product directly from the operators, or analyze the as planned to as built, highlighting the opportunity for improvements in product design or manufacturing process.

Companies that implement connected worker solutions see measurable results in increasing workforce efficiency.

Connected worker in service

A product’s story doesn’t end when it ships to the customer and neither does the story of the connected worker. The adoption of mobile applications and knowledge sharing is a priority for service teams and organizations. Enabling service workers to have all relevant information available in their pockets without the need to search for it helps to fix problems faster.

For a service worker to be safe and effective they need to be connected to their teams and subject matter experts. They need to be connected to the customer, to the right knowledge and content, and to the products. For example, step-by-step guidance assists workers with checklists to ensure that all required tasks have been completed. By connecting service technicians with digital knowledge on mobile devices, they benefit from easier collaboration with their co-workers and customers.

Service workers can also use AR-facilitated 3D visualizations and AI-enhanced guided workflows when installing or servicing products. Visualization with AR makes it easier for workers to understand complex products and processes and avoid errors. Customers of manufacturing companies expect problems to be fixed fast and the first time to avoid long downtimes. Automated visual workflows and inspections empower service workers to make customers happy.

In some cases, the end customers themselves make their own AR guides for their employees to use the products in common tasks or even perform simple maintenance or troubleshooting tasks. Leveraging data from IoT and other connected devices can help a service worker to identify a potential problem easier and guide them to the solution.

These solutions increase customer satisfaction and efficiency of service and support teams. Just like the manufacturer wants to avoid as much rework as possible, the customer wants to avoid unnecessary trips to the mechanic!

Types of connected workers

  • Operators are responsible for operating and managing machinery, overseeing production processes, and ensuring the efficient execution of tasks within the manufacturing facility.
  • Field Service workers perform on-site tasks, repairs, installations, or maintenance services for customers or clients outside of a company's physical location, often requiring mobility and direct interaction with clients in diverse locations.
  • Engineers design, develop, and optimize products and processes, applying technical expertise to ensure efficient and high-quality production.
  • Executives lead the strategic direction of the company, providing oversight to engineering teams to align product development with market needs, overseeing manufacturing operations for efficiency, and ensuring that service components meet or exceed customer expectations, collectively driving the company's success across engineering, manufacturing, and service domains.

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Connected worker use cases

  • Quality
  • Maintenance
  • Operations
  • Training and Workforce Development
  • Continuous Improvement

Challenges of the connected worker approach

There are reasons that not every worker is a connected worker. Among those are misconceptions relating to the cost of implementation and challenges in scaling the technology, which this piece has hopefully already laid to rest. However, even companies that do use the connected worker approach face some hurdles that weren’t necessarily anticipated. For example, companies might think that it is required to be connected to a network or to have 5G connectivity. Connected workers can have the content and knowledge on their mobile devices for offline consumption - in this the connectivity is knowing what they will need to interact with before they go offline.

Any new implementation comes with a “learning curve” as workers adopt to changing procedures and new tools. Procedures and tools used by the connected worker are no exception.

In a recent study of global car maker Volkswagen, respondents embraced training, personal change, and digital transformation. Employees do not consider digitalization to be a job killer. Workers even perceive technological change as normal in the automotive industry. According to the study, one of the most significant barriers is high training efforts, especially in the digital context, that do not necessarily “pay off” for them.

“This suggests that automotive companies should focus on two things: on the one hand, simple and efficient learning paths for workers; for example, leveraging digital tools to reduce their learning effort. On the other hand, companies need to clearly outline how the change will pay off for workers and how it will improve their situation”, says industry analyst Arnold Vogt from PAC.

Conclusion

The Connected Worker movement is the most recent in an evolutionary process as old as industry itself. While the current pace at which exponential technologies are emerging and converging have many people concerned about the impact of these technologies on work as we know it, companies can and should begin exploring the ways in which emerging technologies can help their current workers do their jobs with greater efficiency, safety, and sense of wellbeing.

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Tags: CAD Augmented Reality Industrial Internet of Things Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) Digital Transformation Digital Transformation AR Workforce Efficiency Industrial Connectivity

About the Author

Dirk Schart Dirk Schart is Senior Director Go-to-Market at PTC and leads the global Vuforia marketing. Previously, he led the US business and go-to-market strategy at Enterprise AR startup RE'FLEKT in the role of the Chief Marketing Officer. Dirk developed the patented Augmented Windows technology at HyperloopTT and built their SaaS business.