2016: A wearables odyssey
With dozens of new products introduced at the CES and the Mobile World Congress, 2016 might be the turning point for wearables on the factory floor.
Published on February 24

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By Matt LaWell, IndustryWeek

Brian Ballard, CEO and co-founder of APX Labs, lives in a series of cycles. Each cycle starts with research, transitions to development, proceeds to testing, and so on, just like the rest of the tech world, in an endless loop of process and improvement. Every now and then, if your process is on track, if your product delivers, the loop offers exclamations.

This year could be filled with exclamations for Ballard, his company and his corner of the industry.

APX Labs has carved its wearables niche in developing software for major names in oil, gas and defense (including General Electric, an investor and customer). The company is near the front of the pack for manufacturing wearables—and its smart glasses are poised for a big 2016. An impressive round of tech was introduced last month at CES in Las Vegas and this week at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain.

“Smart glasses really cemented themselves as something companies were using in 2015, but … it takes almost a year to get through everything,” Ballard said. “You’ll start seeing them used on a much larger scale than they were in 2015: Moving from one line to the whole factory, or from one factory to the whole bullpen of factories that support a process.

“There are still some areas inside logistics that we won’t see—the hardware can’t replace all the tools used today—but in field service and manufacturing, I think you’re going to see a big uptick in the technology.”

Smart glasses might not even have the biggest chunk of the market, at least when consumer sales are included. A recent study from IDC forecasts about 160 million wearables shipped in 2019, with more than 120 million of them headed for your wrist. (About 25 million wearables were shipped in 2014, and close to 80 million last year.) Clothing, eyewear, modular and earwear will make up almost all of the remaining quarter.

As consumer appetite for wearables continues to drive innovation, the next five to seven years will include some incredible products like the Daqri Smart Helmet, Kopin Smart Glass, all sorts of virtual and augmented reality headsets, industry applications for smart glasses and smart watches, and, soon, ingestibles that track you from the inside out.

For manufacturers, “the same platform your supervisors are using is the same one your technicians are using and the same one your supply chain is using. It’s a hyperconnected, multiplayer work environment,” Ballard said. “We don’t see this as just a bunch of individual users working together. We see it as a team working together—with your existing legacy systems, with your robotics, with your IoT [Internet of Things]—and all that together could be a game-changer.”

The loop of process and improvement will circle on, toward another revolution, and another, and another.

staff writer Matt LaWell covers manufacturing technology. He explores news in manufacturing technology, covering trends and developments in automation, robotics, digital tools and emerging technologies. He also reports on the best practices of the most successful high-tech companies, including computer, electronics, and industrial machinery and equipment manufacturers.