Leave the two-way radio in the past

Modern team communication technologies boost productivity and safety

By Chris Clarke March 12, 2021

Plant environments present many challenges for person-to-person and group communication. Plants are noisy and entail safety concerns. Workers are spread out and lack new technology — or any technology — for effective team communication. Current communication practices in plants can make it cumbersome, time consuming and risky to give direction, ask a question or simply have a necessary conversation to accomplish the task at hand.

Communication method challenges

In the 1980s and 1990s, many plants adopted the technology of the age, the two-way radio, for communication. It is still in use today. Although an effective solution three or four decades ago, two-way radios are not the most effective or efficient communication tools. Conversations take anywhere from two to five times as long as they need to due to the one-at-a-time communication structure. Each person in a conversation has to push a button to talk and to respond, the others have to wait for their turn to speak. This makes back and forth conversation for asking questions or confirming understanding stilted and halting.

It’s not a natural way to talk. Two-way radios also require hands-on use, and a single radio may not be sufficient for some personnel. For example, some plant managers have to carry multiple radios to communicate with various teams.

Some plants have resorted to using employees’ personal or company-provided cellular phones for communication. This approach relies on consumer technology, which is fragile without the correct protective cases and undependable in areas where the signal is weak or because of batteries that deplete quickly. It also requires hands-on use. Finally, mobile phones are expensive to provide to all personnel.

Yet other plants eschew communication technology altogether and rely on face-to-face communication. This approach requires employees to go find the person they need to speak with. In noisy environments, that can lead to shouting. With COVID-19 operating regulations in effect, the no-tech communication method is not only inefficient, it is also dangerous.

Even facilities that aren’t categorized as “smart” update their technology use in the form of new machines, contemporary software and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) integration. Now is the perfect time to evaluate your technology and communication practices and consider how to improve.

Enter: wireless intercom

Communication between people and among teams in plants should be easy, efficient, safe and improve productivity.

Fortunately, there are practical and affordable communication technology options for plants: Bluetooth intercom and Mesh Intercom. Both systems offer fast, reliable and robust communication tools that can be easily implemented, often without even involving information technology (IT) departments.

Bluetooth intercom. When you hear the word “Bluetooth,” images of wireless mice for laptops or earbuds for smartphones may come to mind. But industrial-grade Bluetooth intercom is much more than those consumer-use accessories. Bluetooth operates with a variety of profiles for different purposes, such as pairing wireless devices. Bluetooth intercom uses a specific profile to connect headsets together for voice communication.

Setting up in-plant Bluetooth intercom is as simple as pairing team devices to each other, typically limited to four total devices. It is secure in that each device in the network must accept the other and do not rely on Wi-Fi or cellular signals (see Figure 1).

Mesh Intercom. Mesh Intercom is built on a mesh network that uses local network topology with an infrastructure of nodes that connect directly with each other to efficiently route data or signal to each other. Each device on the network acts as a node and builds the network, making it stronger while also broadening the range.

Whereas Bluetooth is a familiar technology term, “mesh” is often thought to be new and extremely high tech. While the technology is sophisticated, it is simple to implement and has been around for more than a decade. Mesh Intercom systems have been proven in a variety of industries and its adoption for industrial manufacturing is growing.

Mesh Intercom systems are secure and operate independently from Wi-Fi or cellular much like Bluetooth, however it offers additional benefits beyond a simple Bluetooth intercom system with broader ranges and the capability of connecting a virtually limitless numbers of devices to the network (see Figure 2).

Wireless intercom improves productivity

The concept is simple: Better communication produces better work. By speeding up, simplifying and stabilizing communication among plant personnel, efficiency and productivity improves while solving quality and safety challenges you may not have previously known about.

Full duplex, high-quality communication. Headsets on both Bluetooth and Mesh Intercom systems offer full duplex in communication, meaning that everyone on the network can both talk and listen to everyone else at the same time. This translates into completely natural communication and the ability to interrupt to clarify or correct immediately, which reduces the risk of errors stemming from miscommunication. In addition, full duplex in communication systems means hands-free operation since there’s no need to press a button to talk. When a worker is wearing a headset, he or she can speak to his or her team while continuing to work.

The benefits of full duplex operation are faster, clearer and more natural conversations, hands-free operation and fewer work-stopping interruptions. In addition, both Bluetooth and mesh technologies offer better quality audio than two-way radios. These technologies are not susceptible to pops, crackles or other interference. High-quality audio means that workers can hear each other more clearly to avoid miscommunication (see Figure 3).

Simplified hardware. Communication devices operating on a Mesh Intercom system can offer multiple communication channels, meaning that a single headset can replace a belt full of radios. Plant managers and other personnel will be able to better communicate with every working group in the plant using just one device. This connects engineering, maintenance, supervisors and training groups in a convenient and efficient way while improving productivity.

IIoT connectivity. If your plant has an IIoT environment, you can incorporate plant communications using Mesh Intercom in a way that two-way radios and cellular phones could never be integrated. Whole plant communication is possible when Bluetooth-enabled programmable logic controllers (PLCs) are connected to a Mesh Intercom network using an adapter. Machine errors or other alerts indicating a need for attention can be transitioned from, or supplement, pillar light and text-based alerts to audible alerts sent out over the Mesh Intercom. This speeds up attention to errors and reduces machine downtime (see Figure 4).

Mix-and-match hardware capability. Bluetooth and Mesh Intercom networks can operate with a range of hardware, so teams are not limited to the same headset as others. Headsets with hearing protection incorporated can be used in loud plant areas while standard over-the-ear headsets may be better suited for shipping. Adapters also can be used to connect any Bluetooth-enabled headset, including Apple Airpods, to the mesh network. This provides the flexibility for employees to bring their own device as well as to have a “floater” for connecting visitors or temporary contractors to the team with their own equipment.

As bring your own device (BYOD) programs grow in popularity across the manufacturing sector, the ability to allow employees to use the devices most comfortable for them is an attractive option.

Alternatives enable safety practices

Safety is paramount for all manufacturing facilities. Communication systems should reflect that. Noise-attenuating headsets or those that can be mounted to hard hats are simple integrations with PPE that enhance plant safety. Additionally, the simple switch to hands-free communication improves safety practices by freeing up workers to focus on their task at hand — with all of the hands that it needs. For plants that incorporate lab or cleanroom functions, it’s also important that the devices can be used inside suits and/or under masks, reducing the risk of touch contamination and the need to pull down a mask to speak (see Figure 5).

Adapt to the “new normal”

Easy operation with masks is one way that communication technology can help plants adapt to what has become the new normal in a COVID-19 environment. Bluetooth and Mesh Intercom systems make communicating effectively while maintaining appropriate physical distance a reality.

These systems also can be leveraged for reducing the number of people who need to be physically present in a plant. For example, a food processing plant was planning an executive visit and demonstration on a new piece of equipment in the Spring. Those plans had to pivot quickly due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions. Rather than plan an onsite demo, the company connected an iPad to its Mesh Intercom network using a mesh adapter. They hosted a Zoom call on the iPad with the executives who were now remote rather than onsite. The team of five who were onsite were able to properly maintain distance wearing their headsets while presenting and discussing the machine as originally planned. They have now incorporated this method into their training practices to keep their people safe.

The technology curve

There’s no doubt that plants are getting smarter by integrating technology in all areas. Team communication is the most immediately impacted and easiest area to update from old technology or no technology. However, updating won’t only move your plant forward along the technology curve, it will enable safer work for your employees, ease communication challenges and improve productivity.

Author Bio: Chris Clarke is a global director at Sena Technologies.