Factory workers faced with unfamiliar tasks may soon be able to get the information they need to complete the jobs thanks to an electronic performance support system that provides "just in time" training wherever it is needed.
Known as Factory Automation Support Technology (FAST), the prototype system uses job performance support software, wireless communication and a wearable computer that operates hands-free. Researchers at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) have created two FAST applications for the poultry industry, though the system has applications in other industrial sectors.
"FAST is intended to support mobile employees as they perform a job, rather than train them before," said Chris Thompson, a GTRI senior research engineer.
Development of FAST was a two-part process that involved creation of both an information database for each application as well as the hardware-based delivery system, Thompson noted.
The basic FAST hardware, which is undergoing a fourth generation of design, includes: (1) a credit card-sized computer and wireless communication system worn on the belt, allowing portability and transmission of data in real time to other computer systems; (2) a visor worn like safety glasses to display computer information to the user via a miniaturized display; (3) earphones for listening to auditory information provided by the computer; (4) a microphone to allow voice-activated, hands-free operation of the computer, and (5) flexible 8-hour battery packs worn on the belt.
Optional equipment includes a small, adjustable camera mounted on the visor so the user can point it at a broken piece of equipment and send the video to an expert in another location; a small hand-held version of the camera that users can poke in and around equipment; and a one-hand keyboard.
"We faced two challenges in designing the hardware system," Thompson said. "We had to make the wearable computer as small as possible to be comfortable for users. And robust voice recognition required a lot of processing power, which in turn necessitates a large battery. We are still working on these issues. The fourth generation of the system will greatly increase our processing power, while the flexible battery belt will allow an operator to work an entire shift without recharging."
On the software side of FAST, the design team encountered problems with their voice recognition software because of high ambient noise in factories. So they limited the vocabulary needed to give commands to the system and employed noise-canceling microphones.
Creating information databases for the poultry plant applications of FAST also challenged researchers. "The goal of a performance support system is to provide employees with the right information, in the right quantity and detail, at the right time," Thompson said. "Ideally, performance support systems allow less proficient employees to perform as more experienced employees by providing them with appropriate knowledge."
Typical information databases include: reference information about a job task or closely related set of tasks; just-in-time, task-specific training; expert advice about a job task; advice on how to use the performance support system effectively; application help functions; and automated tools for task performance.
FAST applications, which have been briefly field tested, help poultry plant personnel collect quality assurance data. The application now under development will collect data for USDA regulatory compliance requirements. The projects are a partnership between GTRI, the state of Georgia and the Georgia poultry industry.
"In our field tests, employees have been very excited by the FAST system," Thompson said. "There's a 'cool' factor to it.... Management personnel are interested and supportive, but it's not a priority to them. It's hard to put a price tag on the cost savings from better process information. But the new application involves regulatory tasks they are mandated to do. There will be a clear long-term cost advantage in doing these tasks electronically."
The regulatory compliance application is being field tested this spring at Claxton Poultry, a small company in Claxton, Ga. The cost savings to smaller companies will have an even greater impact, Thompson said.
The researchers look forward to eventually deploying FAST and believe it will become more feasible as new technology emerges and the $5,000 to $10,000 per system cost declines, they said.
Thompson's design team included GTRI researchers Tim Smith and Tom McKlin, and graduate student Jennifer Ockerman from the School of Industrial and Systems Engineering. Their work is funded through the Georgia Tech Agricultural Technology Research Program.
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