Mesh networks boost safety and productivity
Dynamic mesh networks offer a vastly improved experience.
Mesh networks insights
- The plant floor can be a very loud place, with the ability to cause permanent injury to an operators ears.
- Noise-cancelling headsets allow operators to cancel out equipment noise while being able to hear a coworkers comments through the headset.
- Mesh networks have improved the wireless capabilities of wireless headset devices.
At the heart of any industrial manufacturing plant, there are managers, supervisors, and workers who need to communicate everything from instructions to equipment or safety issues. Yet for the 22 million U.S. workers exposed to hazardous noise while working, manufacturing plants can often be large, noisy, and potentially dangerous.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends that manufacturing personnel avoid noise levels more than 85 decibels (dBA) for a full shift and favors taking a more controlled approach for creating a better, safer working environment. Noise levels in manufacturing plants have been known to reach 115 decibels. Hearing protection cuts those levels considerably, but it doesn’t help with communication — and may make it harder.
That’s why new technology is being embraced by manufacturers all over the US: noise-cancelling headsets and hard hats with highly advanced, hands-free communication built in. These systems do more than create a calm within difficult working environments; they enhance worker safety, improve productivity, and facilitate easy team communication.
No installation, hands-free use
Despite the risky combination of high noise levels and dangerous conditions, communication in manufacturing plants for decades relied on hand signals or shouting. Two-way radios were a step forward but still came up short on the plant floor. These radios can be difficult to hear in noisy environments, they require workers to stop what they’re doing to pick up a handset, and they inevitably create confusion as people speak over each other.
Dynamic mesh networks deliver a vastly improved experience for machine operators, floor supervisors, and managers. For starters, they don’t require onsite installation or base stations. Network connectivity is built into the devices themselves: workers don a hardhat or headset and automatically become a node in the network with connections to their entire team.
Second, these devices reduce noise by 26 decibels. Through small microphones, however, important sounds such as warning signals or approaching vehicles can be amplified, improving situational awareness. Should a sound exceed safe decibel levels (explosive noise for example), the device will automatically lower the sound level to prevent hearing damage, while maintaining situational awareness. These small microphones use software to “listen” to the environment around the wearer and amplify low-frequency sounds. That means workers are protected from ambient noise while remaining aware of alarms and dangers from nearby vehicles (a forklift, for example).
Third, these devices are completely hands free. There is no need to push a button to communicate: simply begin speaking. The system controls are voice activated, letting workers speak to raise or lower the volume, mute incoming audio or their own mic, answer a phone call via a Bluetooth connection, and adjust situational-awareness sensitivity levels without touching their headgear.
When selecting a mesh network provider, look for audio quality of 3.0 or above on the Mean Opinion Score (MOS) scale; ANSI S3 19-1974 compliance for hearing protection; and robust, simultaneous mesh connections.
Making a connection
Mesh networks are highly flexible, giving plant workers a completely different communication experience than in the past.
- Advanced products let multiple teams communicate on their own channels. Channels can be united with a voice command for a fast way to speak to everyone wearing a device.
- Robust networks connect as many as 15 users on each channel within a two-mile range.
- If a user (or group of users) leaves the network, the network continues to function, and workers are automatically rejoined when they come back into range.
- High-functioning products allow a user with a two-way radio to connect their headgear audio to the radio network. Only the person with the two-way radio connection can speak to the radio network, but everyone on the network can hear it (if desired); an efficient way to connect various worker groups.
- Sophisticated mesh networks can connect via Bluetooth to a cell phone. This allows a manager to speak to his/her team via their headgear from anywhere in the world with a cell-phone connection. It can also be used to create a one-to-one connection for in-plant training on a noisy machine.
- Some mesh networks have an emergency notification feature. When a button is pressed on a headset, that wearer has instant priority in the network. If the person has a cell phone paired with the network, that button-push will automatically initiate a phone call to a predefined number, either within the plant or to a remote location.
- When approved by management, workers can stream music into their headgear via a mobile phone. This has been successfully used in situations where boredom is a known safety issue.
Although any manufacturing plant with high noise levels can benefit from a mesh communication network, the technology is proving particularly useful in environments like sawmills, ship- and plane-building operations, and manufacturing operations that involve sand blasting. It’s also ideal for settings like chemical plants and food processing facilities where a manager in one area (say, on a catwalk) must clearly communicate with someone below (say, at a tank control panel many feet below).
In factories, it is important to have a way to communicate about potential hazards in real time to reduce the risk of workplace accidents. Importantly, strong communication networks can ensure crucial safety announcements are heard by every factory worker, such as when a new material or production method is being introduced into the line. Effective communication can also speed up production (no one must stop work to receive or send an email or text), ensure quality levels remain steady, increase the speed at which supervisors are alerted to equipment issues, and reduce material waste — all leading to a better controlled working environment and ultimately increased productivity.
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