Empower Your Manufacturing Employees with BLE-based Sensors

Ryan Spurr

There has never been a more exciting time to start your journey when it comes to sensors. There are so many technologies and options in the marketplace. The choice for which options you leverage depends on your business goals, existing infrastructure, and how you plan to scale proof of concepts everywhere. 

This is where Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) sensors set a new standard for companies seeking to deliver quick time to value, leverage existing and trusted infrastructure, and provide a growing array of long-lasting and beneficial sensor technologies to instrument any part of the manufacturing value stream.

Technology that Scales Quickly

We have seen this written about extensively. Engineers implement a sensor or smart technology in a single plant only to learn it cannot scale across the business into other plants, office spaces, or global operations. This is what the industry calls “pilot purgatory,” and it’s where well-intended initiatives go to fail. Why is this the case? 

While the technology selected might have met its purpose, the chosen technologies didn’t meet corporate policies, cybersecurity requirements, nor did they integrate in any thoughtful way with the existing IT or plant technologies used across the business. This lack of trust, integration with the larger enterprise, and its ability to rapidly scale with little friction limited its future. What if we could select technologies that are pervasive, could ride atop many brands and infrastructure solutions, and could scale up to meet the ambitions of the engineers and leadership alike?

BLE-based sensors are replacing many of today’s legacy technologies for just these reasons. These devices support extended battery life, integrate with IT’s trusted network technologies from Cisco, Meraki, Aruba, Juniper, and can ride atop a widening range of infrastructures such as wireless access points, beacon extenders, mobile devices, and even smart cameras. 

To learn more about how wireless networking is evolving to include technologies like BLE, check out our prior blogs.

What makes this all possible? All of these devices are pervasive in any office space, factory floor, outdoor yard, or warehouse and are now packed with BLE antennas, creating a mesh network of native gateways anywhere in the enterprise. This is huge! It means that we can deploy smart sensors in any department for any process improvement initiative and quickly scale it everywhere. 

Beyond the ease of deployment or scale, imagine what this does to the cost of technology acquisition and the dreaded need to provide business justification (aka, return on investment). If information technology has deployed smart cameras and next-generation wireless access points in all facilities, the cost to deploy sensors just went way down. You need only to acquire a software license and sensor—whether on a limited quantity to run a proof of concept or at volume. Either way, you can quickly acquire, connect, and evaluate if a sensor combined with people, processes, and technology will yield the desired business outcome and meet target KPIs.

Couple this infrastructure with a growing number of BLE-based sensors, and you can start to imagine how this technology isn’t just impactful for a limited few or engineers with the skillsets to deploy. Now any department in the enterprise can apply sensors to solve business objectives like safety, health, environment, capital asset management, and even continuous improvement studies. 

Temperature and Humidity: Many types of sensors exist, but temperature and humidity are some of the most commonly deployed. It’s simple to understand and can be easily correlated to the conditions of just about any business, industry, and process. From monitoring cold storage, setting control limits in factories, monitoring facilities to optimize energy and employee comfort levels, and even monitoring workplace health conditions. We have many customers even deploying this technology into IT network closets, data centers, and other environments that might impact the performance of critical technology and require alerts in the case of cooling issues or fire.

It’s also important to understand that technology is no longer working in isolation. For example, I mentioned BLE-antennas embedded into smart cameras. Not only might a temperature sensor collect data and alert for specific conditions, but these sensors now work in tandem with smart cameras and business management systems. When the temperature meets a threshold, it might not only alert a key stakeholder but also correlate a specific event detected by the camera—such as an IT employee leaving a data center door open or an operator leaving a fridge door open—making it easier to determine the cause of the event and aid in employee retraining or corrective action.

Employee Safety and Mustering: Unlike temperature sensors, there are now many sensor options aligned to support environmental, health, and safety use cases. This includes smart sensors that can monitor multiple environmental conditions such as temperature, humidity, particulate, TVOCs, and ambient noise. 

On the worker-safety side, sensor-based badge technology allows for all employees to have BLE-based sensors attached to their badge with push buttons to alert for help (think slips, trips, falls, or equipment injuries), quickly locate the employee anywhere in the facility to aid in the emergency response process—and in the event of a fire or facilities event—track the safe mustering of all employees and guests.

Continuous Improvement Events: Data is critical to any kaizen event, but what if the data you seek isn’t readily available? What if the team’s next step is to validate its assumptions? How might you leverage sensors to help identify the root cause or even support the team in identifying ways to improve? With sensors that can track the real-time flow of people, vehicles, and things, or take any number of measurements, sensors layered atop of a BLE-based infrastructure can be an elegant way to collect real-time data over a period of performance. That data can then be used to support root cause, corrective action, and verification efforts.

Predictive Maintenance: For any manufacturer dependent on factory machines or facilities equipment like HVAC, moving away from traditional maintenance approaches to a real-time data-driven model is essential to improve visibility of potential equipment issues, proactively maintain equipment that may fail early, and avoid costly downtime. 

While sensors are not the only option to support predictive maintenance (e.g., industrial IoT data acquisition and automation can also help where PLCs exist), sensors can play an important role, especially in situations where equipment is less sophisticated. Think of a simple pump, that legacy motor with no connectivity or intelligence, or other physical equipment that can vibrate, wobble, overheat, or smoke. Sensors can be applied to these types of equipment to ensure proper operation, generate alerts with drifting performance criteria, automate specific downstream tasks with ERP, MES, or Maintenance Management software, and provide plant teams with excellent visibility into their critical equipment.

Automation: An everyday but straightforward use case is how to automate a call for help or trigger a specific business process. Simple BLE-based sensors now exist that allow you to place push-button sensors anywhere in a factory, warehouse, or office location to drive automation. Common examples include placing engineering support calls to support operators who must call for supervisory or engineering support to address a machine equipment failure or quality issue. Another example would be to call material management or line-side stocking teams to replenish material at a specific location. Some companies use the same technology for less glamorous tasks like alerting facilities and janitorial staff to a cleanliness issue in a bathroom. Whatever the situation, you can see how a simple, customizable button might be used across a manufacturing facility to alert, integrate, and automate tasks.

End-to-End Manufacturing Visibility

Sensor technology is rapidly evolving and easier to acquire, deploy, and integrate data to bring business value-based outcomes. BLE is a popular and practical technology to automate wasteful activities, deliver cost-effective solutions, and improve business processes and customer experience. If your business is looking to explore sensor technologies or automate various business processes aligned with corporate goals, engage Connection’s Manufacturing Practice to learn more about this technology and the many use cases that may benefit your organization.

Ryan Spurr is the Director of Manufacturing Strategy at Connection with 20+ years of experience in manufacturing, information technology, and portfolio leadership. He leads the Connection Manufacturing Practice, go-to-market strategy, client engagement, and advisory services focusing on operational technology (OT) and information technology that make manufacturers more digitally excellent.