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Safe Communication in Your Job Shop with Mesh Networks

How wireless communication leads to a safer and more efficient work environment
in today’s manufacturing environment.

Posted: August 19, 2022

Machine shops all over the U.S. are adopting cutting-edge technologies like noise-cancelling headphones and hard caps with integrated hands-free communication systems.
Mesh networks deliver a vastly improved experience for machine operators, floor supervisors and managers. Network connectivity is built into the devices themselves, and the devices are hands free.

Large, noisy, and possibly dangerous manufacturing machine shop facilities are not uncommon. Managers, supervisors, and employees are at the center of any industrial manufacturing facility and must convey anything from directions to equipment or safety concerns.

Approximately 22 million American workers are exposed to dangerous noise at work. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 18% of all manufacturing workers have hearing difficulty, about 11% of all manufacturing workers have tinnitus and about 20% of noise-exposed tested manufacturing workers have a material hearing impairment.

The answer? Hearing protection that reduces incoming noise to safe levels. The associated problem? The same hearing protection that protects workers’ hearing also leads to their complete isolation from their surroundings, leading to workplace accidents and difficulties in communication.

Because of this, machine shops all over the U.S. are adopting cutting-edge technologies like noise-cancelling headphones and hard caps with integrated hands-free communication systems. Systems, which on one hand provide much-needed protection from noise and on the other enable teamwork through wireless intercom solutions.

How Technology Enables Safe Communication

Despite the risky combination of high noise levels and dangerous conditions, communication in machine shops for decades has relied on hand signals or shouting. Two-way radios were a large 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. Such difficulties can result in a decrease in efficiency, which in turn can lead to tasks being completed too late and deadlines missed.

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 it to prevent hearing damage.

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. To allow different teams to communicate in the same area, different channels can be set up, making sure no team interferes with one another.

Within a two-mile radius, robust networks may link up to 15 people per channel. The network keeps running even if a user (or group of users) disconnects, and employees are immediately reconnected when they come back into range. In case someone from the team operates a two-way radio, they can pair the mesh intercom network with the radio network using a connector. All members of the mesh network will be able to hear the two-way instructions.

Sophisticated mesh networks can also 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.

In case of emergency, some mesh networks offer an emergency notification system. Via the push of a button, or a voice command, a pre-defined cellphone number will be automatically called and everyone on the mesh network notified of the emergency.

Safety can be impacted by a variety of things and boredom has been acknowledged as a safety issue. That is where entertainment can be an important part of a job. If approved by management, employees can pair their phones and stream music or integrated radios.

Machine Shop Settings and Safe Communication

Although any machine shop with high noise levels can benefit from a mesh communication network, the technology is proving particularly useful in environments like grinding and in sawmills, ship- and plane-building operations, turning/lathe, and machining operations that involve sand blasting. It’s also ideal for facilities where a manager in one area (say, on a catwalk) must clearly communicate with someone below (say, at a control panel many feet below).

In factories, it is important to have a way to communicate about potential hazards in real time, which can 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 has to 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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