The adoption of Bluetooth-enabled devices during manual work activities has a powerful impact on safety, transparency, and quality across multiple industries. Over the last decade, many companies have recognized the need for digitalization. This digitalization trend was further accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which created a valuable opportunity for companies to review and improve current work practices. At Cumulus, we saw increased adoption of BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) enabled technologies, which allowed for creating digital workflows, collecting field data, and confirming work progress. This, in turn, empowered companies with improved work quality, savings in labor hours, and a reduction in rework. Because of this, Bluetooth Low Energy has many industrial use cases.
“The adoption of Bluetooth-enabled devices during manual work activities has a powerful impact on safety, transparency, and quality across multiple industries.“-Cumulus Digital Systems
The Cause of Delays & Budget Problems
In late 2016, a major energy company was working on an LNG facility, which was over budget and behind schedule. The company’s leadership knew that this was common in its capital projects, and wanted to finally do something about it. Consequently, studies were initiated using systems engineering to better understand the problem, decompose it, and propose effective solutions. Using the LNG facility as a case study, common themes emerged:
- Projects are staffed with transient field workers resulting in high turnover.
- The ratio of inspectors compared to field workers was low, leading to a huge backlog of incomplete work, resulting in a schedule slip.
- The status of fieldwork and field data were not readily available. Data latency could span days or even weeks.
An area that suffered acutely was mechanical operations and integrity; specifically, joint assembly. In most facilities, joints are assembled by craft workers, sometimes called fitters. The joints need to be inspected by quality operators. The data from the joint assembly process needs to be captured and documented for compliance and audit purposes.
The ASME PCC-1 standard recommends transparency, record keeping, and adherence to established guidelines as three components that work to ensure flawless tightening of bolted connections. Therefore, mature facilities typically have a flange management plan, describing engineering and procedural controls that govern joint assembly processes.
In a typical chemical plant or oil refinery, there are regular maintenance intervals referred to as Turn-Around Maintenance (TAM). During a TAM event, whole sections of the plant are shut down for a duration spanning four to eight weeks. Large armies of workers are brought in, some of whom may have never worked in a plant before. They are trained and deployed to perform critical manual work activities, which consist of disassembling, servicing, and reassembling joints per the site’s standard operating procedure.
This process requires careful oversight, hence the need for inspectors and Quality Assurance engineers. Despite the established engineering and procedural controls, there is a high rate of rework, and in some cases, shutdown resulting from leaks caused by mistakes made during maintenance activity. In all cases, the issues can be traced to one of these three root causes:
- Worker error due to improper/insufficient training
- Lack of inspection/review of work
- Lack of real-time field data
Industry data suggests that 30 percent of manual work is not performed correctly, wasting over $625 billion every year. Furthermore, preventable accidents release an estimated 170 million metric tons of Green House Gases (GHG) emissions each year, equivalent to 36 million cars (GEC 2021 study).
Finally, unplanned downtime costs industrial facility owners $260,000 per hour on average (GE/ServiceMax 2019). Making matters worse is the fact that construction and operations teams cannot find enough qualified workers.
According to the AGC 2021 Workforce Survey, the industry needs 2.2 million more workers in 2022, but 72 percent of contractors report difficulty finding quality candidates. S&P Global 2020 states that the Great Crew Change is a “demographic time bomb” driving the adoption of IoT, AI, and AR. Regardless, most commonly used digital solutions do not ensure work quality.
Bluetooth & Digitalization: Empowering Projects
Luckily, there is a way to address all three problems with digitalization. The nature of manual work will always depend on transient workers. This means that continuous training and re-enforcement of learning are necessary.
When data is captured in such a way that it demonstrates how the work was performed, a qualified inspector would have the necessary information to assess the quality of the job that was done without being physically present.
Data connectivity provides a real-time link between field and office workers, empowering inspectors and supervisors to track work progress in real-time. This injects transparency at all levels of work; from the individual who performs the work, to the individual who inspects it. In this manner, the ASME recommendation of transparency, record keeping, and adherence to guidelines can be observed.
Bluetooth-enabled tools have been a crucial means of field data collection. During joint assembly, a digital BLE torque wrench is used to track the torque applied on individual bolts on each connected joint. The wrench is paired with a mobile device.
The engineering data for the joint is downloaded to the application, which uses the workflow to guide the worker on the number of passes, the tightening pattern, and the torque value that should be applied during each pass. This reinforces the training already provided to the worker.
The ability to communicate with a Bluetooth-enabled device is a differentiator, as it allows an inspector to see the actual torque applied on each bolt, providing a degree of transparency previously unavailable. Once the work is completed, the associated data is uploaded to a server. Using a web browser, an inspector can view all the data associated with the work that was done, including an auto-generated completion report.
Benefits of Bluetooth-Enabled Devices
Bluetooth Low Energy protocol is mostly adapted for consumer applications. Therefore, most off-the-shelf GATT profiles are created for use with consumer products. GATT profiles have the benefit of providing standard communication contracts such that consumers can be manufacturer agnostic.
A consumer can buy a device from any manufacturer and expect it to work (plug-and-play). The point-to-point nature of Bluetooth connectivity is especially beneficial in industrial settings where network connectivity is mostly unavailable. Bluetooth Low Energy connected devices have several practical benefits:
- Provides digital interface to control tools.
- Allows for collection and documenting of tool data.
- Point to Point connection minimizes security risks from open web interfaces.
- Ability to transmit data in real time.
Using Bluetooth-connected technology to track flange assemblies, we saw approximately 0.1 percent leak rate, easily a 100-fold reduction in the leak rate compared to the over 10 percent leak rates often seen on projects using traditional methods. Further, one project estimated that they abated 768,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions by preventing leaking flange assemblies, in addition to thousands of labor hours and millions of dollars in labor costs saved by avoiding rework.
In 2016, there were few industrial torque wrenches with BLE interfaces. Leading brands manufactured wrenches with unique communication protocols, like HART, Bluetooth SPP, and Serial port communication. In all cases, the tool interface was unique, and required customizations, and extra hardware for the data interface. The communication interface was not designed to provide the type of information useful for workflow management. Furthermore, there was no off-the-shelf intrinsically safe Bluetooth-enabled digital torque wrench.
BLE Adoption in Industrial Applications
The use of Bluetooth-enabled tools has been a major facilitator of industrial digitalization, enabling the collection of real-time data, worker-level quality, and progress data. While the use case discussed was joint assembly, the same problems apply to work processes that require engineering and procedural controls to ensure quality and safety. Similar savings can be realized in these use cases, however, there are challenges that, if addressed, will ease the adoption of BLE-enabled devices. There are no standard GATT profiles for most industrial tools. The creation of such profiles will have the following benefits:
- Allow tool manufacturers to focus on their core competency knowing that they can use off-the-shelf Bluetooth chips.
- Allow electronic device manufacturers to provide SDKs (Software Development Kits) that ensure BLE standards are adequately met for industrial tools.
- Drive standardization in the capabilities of tools/devices across the different manufacturers in the industry. It allows tool manufacturers to see the features and capabilities most useful to customers.
- Allow customers (industrial facilities) to buy tools from their manufacturer of choice with an expectation of a basic set of capabilities.
- Bluetooth allows developers to design apps tailored to industrial tools without the overhead of buying every single tool and device in the market for testing.
For the continued advancement of innovative industrial digitalization solutions, Bluetooth is a strong solution. The creation of GATT profiles and Bluetooth protocols for industrial tools such as torque wrenches, hydraulic pumps, and digital tags will only increase industry adoption.