Future of work: Internet-connected overalls

SAN FRANCISCO – A man dressed like a utility worker approaches an electrical panel. As he moves to touch the metal box a light blinks. Sensors sewn into his overalls have cut the flow of electricity to the box. He can now work without the risk of electrocution.

“This is just one way technology can help workers do their jobs better and more safely,” says Stephane Sireau of GE Digital, whose prototype suit was one of many demos at General Electric’s Minds + Machines conference, which wrapped up Wednesday.

“Our mission is to integrate the worker into a digital industrial context,” says Sireau, showing how the suit’s sensors also provide vital sign data. That information, in turn, can help emergency responders and anticipate worker health problems.

You have probably heard of the Internet of Things, or IoT, which refers to the growing number of Web-connected gadgets being pitched to consumers, from thermostats to door locks.

But a less familiar acronym is IIoT, or the Industrial Internet of Things, which leverages Internet connectivity and cloud-based data crunching to, ideally, streamline the worker experience, drive efficiencies into manufacturing logistics and optimize energy resources.

Long known primarily for making big-ticket hardware devices such as MRI machines and jet engines, General Electric is doubling down on software and IIoT.

GE’s chief digital officer Bill Ruh has said that the company’s digital business, including software and its open source Predix operating system, which debuted in February, will account for $7 billion in revenue this year, up from $5 billion in 2015. The company expects to hit $15 billion in revenue by 2020, up from an earlier prediction of $10 billion.

Stephane Sireau of GE Digital demostrates who a workers suit laced with sensors can cause a potentially lethal electricity junction box to cut power before the worker approaches. (Photo: Marco della Cava, USA TODAY)

By the end of this year, some 20,000 industrial app designers will be developing for Predix. By 2020, GE officials say the IIoT economy will hit $225 billion as businesses look to technology to boost their bottom line.

Such sunny talk immediately raises two dark specters: potential job loss and catastrophic hacking incidents.

President-elect Donald Trump campaigned on a platform of job creation that took tech companies such as Apple to task for outsourcing its manufacturing. Voters in counties where manufacturing dominates overwhelmingly supported him against rival Hillary Clinton. Some said technology did more harm than good, automating blue-collar jobs humans once did.

And just three weeks ago, a massive attack on unsecured IoT devices downed the websites of Amazon and Twitter on the East Coast.

Both topics have GE execs brooding.

“If you’re saying you want the job you have to last forever, that’s difficult,” says Colin Parris, GE’s vice president of software research. “But our feeling is that something like Predix can leverage technology to democratize the workplace.”

Parris gives the example of a factory worker who has an idea on how to solve a problem, but doesn’t have computer coding skills. “They could use a speech interface to dictate a request to a computer that could then take on the task of writing the code,” he says.

As for the vulnerability of the IIoT, Parris says the only solution to hacking threats is “hard work.” He says one way to help safeguard industrial devices is to run repeated threat scenarios that use a machines “basic physics” as a baseline.

For example, if a large steam engine operating at peak efficiency is supposed to throw up a very specific set of numbers, any deviation from that norm could indicate a hack and human and computer overseers could respond accordingly.

“We’re always attacking ourselves with bots and encouraging others to do the same, and to share that information,” says Parris.

Much of what was on display at Minds + Machines was still largely futuristic in scope, with GE hosting potential industrial customers to both gauge their interest in a particular product or service and to get their thoughts on real-world deployment.

GE Digital’s Peter Hardwick wears Microsoft HoloLens, an augmented reality device that GE can use to help workers fix gear by study a hologram representation of the problem ahead of time. (Photo: Marco della Cava, USA TODAY)

At one booth, GE featured a chair facing three large screens that allowed a worker to monitor data from a range of wind farm turbines. At another, representatives displayed a DJI quadcopter next to a video that showed how the drone could be deployed in advance of a human team to check for issues on a cracked turbine.

A few feet away, visitors tried on Microsoft’s HoloLens augmented reality goggles, which projected a holographic image of a large mechanical device that was essentially a digital twin of its real-life counterpart.

“If you walk up closer to the hologram, you can look into the device and even see the wiring hidden inside its panels, all of which would help you trouble shoot a problem before going to work on the real thing,” says Peter Hardwick, GE Digital senior staff architect.

But not everyone is instantly sold on the IIoT’s digital solutions for what have long been hands-on fixes to industrial problems.

Hardwick says so far visitors to his display have had questions about the durability of HoloLens, a $3,000 all-in-one device that at present is only available to developers and some enterprise customers. Others question whether their employees will welcome putting on a large wearable computer.

“It’s still early days,” says Hardwick. “Right now, our job is to get feedback, and go from there.”

Follow USA TODAY tech reporter Marco della Cava on Twitter.

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