Bringing Digital Technology to Frontline Workers

Written By: Nancy White
  • 10/21/2020
  • Read Time : 3 min

“The Genie is not going back in the bottle,” said Jim Heppelmann, PTC’s President and CEO, at his keynote at the virtual Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit, held virtually on Oct. 21.

The “Genie” is the significant changes to daily life – and work – brought on by the global Covid-19 pandemic. There is a “new normal” facing everyone, and businesses have responded in varying degrees, from work-from-home orders to Zoom conference calls to social distancing.

However, if there’s one thing the Covid-19 pandemic has made abundantly clear is the vital importance of digital technologies. In fact, Heppelmann said, the pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation (DX) journey for many businesses by years. Even with IT resources constrained from COVID, 451 Research found digital transformation initiatives increased with 25 percent of companies with newly introduced or accelerated DX projects and 41 percent continuing with the original project timeline.

With that background, Heppelmann spoke to the present and future of digital technologies, and how they are and will continue to support a particular segment of the workforce.

At the moment, digital tools primarily help knowledge workers – a minority in the global workforce – do their job from anywhere. The other 75 percent? Frontline workers. This group doesn’t work from home and doesn’t stare at a computer all day – and millions still had to go to work in the midst of the pandemic.

“We must make it a priority to bring digital to the frontline workforce,” he said. In order to do that effectively, digital technologies need to be delivered in new and different ways to support these workers. “We need the real world to be the canvas for digital information.”

Heppelmann put forth several examples of the frontline equivalent of commonly used work tools.

Zoom helps knowledge workers communicate effectively by creating a visual connection between colleagues. For frontline workers, they too need improved communication tools, but they often need a colleague (or expert) to see what they are seeing. They need someone to interact with them within the context of the problem they are trying to solve, Heppelmann said. Watch this video for an example of frontline workers using Vuforia Chalk.

What makes Chalk effective is it allows both parties to see the same thing, Heppelmann said. In the video, the expert marks up the screen to convey steps in a process. Even when the user pans over the entire panel, the marks is anchored to the target – this is an example of the real world being a true canvas for information via augmented reality.

Word, PDFs, PowerPoint slides are widely used to publish information, instructions, and procedures. For those at a computer, it’s an effective way to share knowledge, concepts, and ideas. For the frontline it is far more efficient if information is presented within the context of the work they are doing. With augmented reality/mixed reality, frontline workers can view digital work instructions in the context of the work they’re doing, which helps employees do their job better and learn more effectively. 

See this video of a BAE Systems employee using a Microsoft HoloLens with Vuforia Studio software to get step-by-step work instructions:


Millions turn to YouTube for how-to assistance with DIY and repair projects; however, there’s cognitive distance between what you’re doing with the how-to videos – it captures the foreground and background information at the same time. Heppelmann described it this way: You ask your friend to show you how to make bread, so she creates a video of herself making bread in her kitchen, but what you really needed was how to make break in your kitchen. “You needed to separate the making of the bread from which kitchen it’s being made,” Heppelmann said.

It’s the same for the more complicated procedures in factories, he said. With Vuforia Expert Capture, an expert puts on a wearable device and captures a digital record of the steps in a process. That content can then be edited and made available for delivery on a variety of devices (wearable tech, smartphones, tablets).


As Covid-19 continues to affect the way we work, these technologies, in particular augmented reality, are more essential than ever before to support frontline workers.

Yet, these digital technologies are just a start to what’s possible as we all navigate the new normal, Heppelmann said. There are greater opportunities to digitize frontline work.

Physical Digital Convergence with Digital Twins

Heppelmann presented a framework for thinking about the possibilities around frontline work and digital technologies that involves four interconnected pieces: products, people, place, and process.

Each one of these areas represents a dimension of frontline work. By thinking about each piece -- and how they intersect and work together (i.e. products and people work together on a process in a place), we can build a deeper connection between the physical and the digital.

Below is a breakdown and where there are opportunities for digital technologies to drive value.


With digital technologies, PTC is working to create a “mirror world” for industry with digital twins. “What we want to do is create on the digital side a mirror image of what’s happening on the physical side,” Heppelmann said.

He shared examples of how these digital twins are being defined and brought to life:


  • With a new factory, we can define it digitally with technologies, like CAD, and for existing spaces, we can capture the physical space with technologies like depth-sensing cameras and photogrammetry.
  • Onshape, PTC’s SaaS-based CAD software, is enabling real-time collaboration, agile engineering changes, and seamless PLM integration within digital twins.
    Software, like Emulate3D by Rockwell Automation, can assist in programming automation within the factory, further driving the convergence of the physical and the digital.
  • Real-time digital twin of a physical space that captures not only a virtualization of the space, but movement of people and products within the space.


Spatial Computing Is the Future

With digital twin, spatial computing is the next-generation technology that enables industrial companies to understand how products, people, and processes relate to one another within a place. 

With spatial technologies, data streams from sensors, PLCs, and more are collected from the physical world, then monitored and analyzed in the digital world. This analysis produces valuable insights into what’s happening in the physical world – and with a better understand of how and why things happen, we can begin to predict what will happen, and adjust accordingly.

“We’re creating a closed loop, interactive, monitoring and optimization loop between a physical site and a digital site,” Heppelmann said.

Sharing state-of-the-art solutions for industrial worksites, like AR worker analytics, spatial process definition and analytics, Heppelmann envisions a new way to optimize work within frontline spaces.

Harnessing multiple technologies, like augmented reality, IoT, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, computer vision, and more, to digitize a frontline workspace, companies will be able to optimize on multiple levels and drive efficiencies.

State of Digital Transformation

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  • Augmented Reality
  • Digital Transformation
  • Digital Twin
  • COVID-19

About the Author

Nancy White

Nancy White is a content marketing strategist for the Corporate Brand team at PTC. A journalist turned content marketer, she has a diverse writing background—from Fortune 500 companies to community newspapers—that spans more than a decade.