A challenging but ultimately successful scramble to make a half-million plastic face shields early in the pandemic now has one manufacturer trying to give a high-tech, Industry 4.0 makeover to that low-tech personal protective equipment.
"Internally, we're calling it intelligent PPE," said Michael Regelski, senior vice president and chief technology officer for the electrical sector at power management firm Eaton Corp.
The Northeast Ohio company, which has 93,000 employees worldwide, wants to digitize PPE.
Back in the spring, Eaton led a project with other manufacturers that quickly shifted production lines at plastic molding and mold making companies around the state and churned out hundreds of thousands of face shields for the Ohio government.
The need was clear: Eaton has made more than 500,000 face shields, about 50 percent above initial projections of 360,000.
And that demand prompted some thinking. Could the firm take the Industry 4.0, interlinked technology in its electronics equipment and upgrade the decidedly simpler face shield?
"We tried to ask, what can we do to digitally enable it to increase the safety and welfare of both the individual as well as the company and the other coworkers," Regelski said. "What we did is we looked at how to embed different sensing technology and communication technologies into the face shield and into any type of PPE."
In an Oct. 14 interview, he said Eaton is close to launching the results of the effort. It sees applications for PPE that can do things like monitor vitals and pay attention to social distancing in a wide range of industries, from medical facilities to factories and other workplaces.
"When you start looking at large-scale facilities, meat-packing facilities and everything, there's so much manual process and check and expense that's going in to keeping workers safe, that the industry is just ripe for something that could be automated," he said.
The company is developing sensors that can easily attach to face shields or other protective gear or function on their own.
Besides checking vitals, they can also monitor if a wearer is too close to another coworker for too long to regulate social distancing and create a digital trail of contacts within the factory. If someone tests positive, companies can use that to trace back who they may have interacted with.
"If somebody is detected as having COVID, how do you quickly do a contact trace inside the facility and say who else might this person have run into and how do I notify them so that I don't have an outbreak inside of my site?" he said. "We're finding this to be a very well-received extension of the physical PPE that people have to wear anyway."
Regelski said Eaton was exploring digitally enhanced PPE before the pandemic in areas more related to its core businesses, like protecting electrical workers, but COVID-19 dramatically accelerated that work.
"This really gave it a turbocharge," he said. "It allowed us to look at this as a way not only to help get everyone back to work safely and keep them at work safely, but it also accelerates our strategic plans."
Eaton is far from the only company looking at blending PPE and technology. A June report from the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work noted a lot of interest in "smart PPE" but cautioned it's a new area lacking in the standards and testing protocols available for regular PPE.
An August report from consulting firm Technavio estimated an 11 percent annual growth rate for smart PPE from 2020 to 2024.