Industrial Hearables: A Rising Star In The EHS Digitization Agenda
Industrial hearables essentially are miniaturized in-ear computers. The technology is a subset of industrial wearable technology and is seeing increased use cases in heavy-duty industries where noise control is a concern. Industrial hearables or 'hearables' appear to be taking a similar path as wearable vital sign monitors—mass consumer adoption leading to decreasing costs, high competition among manufacturers, feature-packed offering of devices in ever more ergonomically appealing form-factors, and then industrial adoption. Hearables combine the advantages of wearable technology with hearing devices, and recent iterations even have in-built optical sensors capable of measuring heartrate and temperature. Similarly, vendors such as Starkey Hearing Technologies are applying the technology to fall detection and alerts for use by the elderly.
As mentioned, heavy industries such as manufacturing, construction, mining, agriculture, airports and logistics stand to benefit from hearables. According to the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC), about 22 million American workers are exposed to potentially damaging noise at work per annum. Also, the UK's Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reported that there were 55 new claims for work-related deafness during 2018 and 21,000 work-related problems from noise between 2016 and 2019. Furthermore, a European Union (EU) report estimates that the economic cost of hearing loss is 25 billion euros higher than the EU's annual budget of approximately 165 billion euros per annum. Hearables, in their current form-factor, are wearable devices and stand to benefit from the steadily increasing adoption of their parent category. Verdantix recently surveyed 284 senior managers in operations, asset integrity and maintenance roles across 13 economic regions and 12 industries. When respondents to the survey were asked the significance of nine digital innovations for operational excellence in 2020 and 2021, 34% and 56% indicated that wearable digital devices for health and safety were very significant and significant, respectively (see Verdantix Operational Excellence Survey 2019: Budgets, Priorities & Tech Preferences).
With the increasing adoption of wearable technology, even PPE is evolving past simple protective equipment. Although a last line of defence, PPE is another hierarchy of hazard control seeing increasing digitization (see Verdantix Strategic Focus: Incorporating Technology Into The Hierarchy Of Controls). Specifically, industrial hearables could not only be applied in the context of PPE but also at the 'Substitution' level within the hierarchy. This would be in the form of active noise control—use of audio processing techniques to eliminate or enhance noise via the phenomenon of inverse soundwaves cancelling each other (see Verdantix 2020 Tech Roadmap: Industrial Wearables). In summary, hearables can aid in audio masking, directional hearing and noise cancellation. Based on the HSE and EU report estimates, the potential business value of hearables may be very high. Additionally, the technology's pace of innovation has been rapid, with vendors such as Google launching its consumer smart hearable Pixel Buds 2 in late 2020 and vendors such as EESR Global Technologies and Sensear already leveraging this technology in heavy industry for directional hearing and noise cancellation.