Working in a cleanroom is one of the most interesting, rewarding, and – let’s admit it – at times frustrating jobs around. As anyone familiar with the environment will attest, the rules around performance are complex and labyrinthine, and – in a good cleanroom – they’re updated and perfected almost constantly. From the tasks to be performed to direction of flow within the workspace to the speed at which a technician should move to avoid introducing contamination, cleanroom behaviors must be controlled by SOPs and best practices, that are audited regularly. And sometimes separating the ‘how’ from the ‘what’ can be a task in itself. Read the Technical Brief “Auditing Conformance to Standard Operating Procedures”.
But what if a cleanroom operator’s personal protective equipment could help with that? What if the standard cleanroom bunny suit could be replaced by a sensor-driven ‘smart’ suit that was internet-enabled and connected in real time to relay details of the wearer’s full-body biomechanics – their movements, direction, and speed. What if the same suit could also monitor the speed with which the wearer completed their tasks along with an analysis of their breathing rate and perspiration levels as a way of ensuring that they are comfortably and confidently executing tasks correctly, rather than anxiously rushing through an assigned ‘to-do’ list. And what if that same suit could monitor the wearer’s physical health, detecting heat fluctuations that could indicate fever and prompt their removal from the sterile environment before they themselves even realize there could be a problem.
Welcome to the Internet of Things.
We’re all familiar with the Internet, the world-wide interconnection of computers and devices upon which we now rely for our work, our entertainment, our news and communication, and pretty much every facet of our 21st century lives. Born of packet switching technology devised in the U.S. by the Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) in its ARPANET project of the 1960s, the Internet as we now know it grew from the creation of multiple, open architecture networks which were distinct and independent.(1) Although envisioned as an open network with distributed control and no globally centralized governance or restriction, the nascent Internet was initially used only by governmental agencies and a small community of academics and researchers. But the community quickly began to grow. By the mid-1970s, branch networks for high-level science researchers were formed wherever funding allowed, with networks such as the U.S. Department of Energy’s MFENet (Magnetic Fusion Energy) and HEPNet (High Energy Physicists), NASA’s SPAN (Space Physics Analysis Network), and AT&T’s USENET. But it wasn’t until the mid-1980s with the advent of the British network JANET (Joint Academic Network) and the U.S. NSFNET program that the technology was rolled out to everyone else. According to the ever-changing statistics of InternetLiveStats.com, a staggering 46% of the global population now has access to Internet connectivity, with almost 3.5 billion users globally.(2)
So with such an expansive, and ever expanding, network, what do we mean by the Internet of Things? Is it simply the next version, a kind of Internet on steroids? Not really. The Internet of Things (IoT) is an acknowledgement that the contemporary Internet connects only people, not devices. As a society, we are becoming incrementally more connected to one another in individual terms but the objects that we rely on are being left behind. In fact, in terms of their technology, the majority of our current devices more closely resemble the ‘dumb terminals’ of the 1970s and 80s than the artificially-intelligent tools we’re striving to develop.
And the IoT aims to change all of that. To qualify as a part of this brave new world, a device must exhibit just three qualities: it must be able to sense and collect data; it must be autonomous; and finally, it must be actionable – that is to say, it must be able to trigger an alert or perform a specified action. And the scope of objects that would qualify is increasingly broad, encompassing cellphones, refrigerators, automobiles, washing machines, coffeemakers, wearable devices like fitness trackers or heart monitors, domestic thermostats and security cameras – pretty much any device with an on-off switch or that can contain a sensor. In fact, given the deep pool of candidates, the IoT will, according to Forbes, bring upwards of 26 billion devices online by 2020.(3)
And, contrary to popular perception, the IoT is about more than just programming your refrigerator to re-order groceries when supplies run low.
In a truly networked world, your alarm clock would have access to traffic and weather reports, waking you earlier for that all-important meeting when it senses that heavy flow or rain storms could slow your commute. And getting you out of the house earlier means your coffee maker needs to detect a change in conditions so that it can have your first cup of joe brewed sooner (and perhaps stronger) than normal. It also means having your in-car satnav select an alternative route to bypass that grid-lock on the freeway, and ensuring that your home security system is up to speed with your earlier than usual departure.
Furthermore, true ‘always-on’ connectivity can enhance our lives in other ways. Take, for instance, smarter and more pro-active healthcare. We already rely on devices like the FitBit to record our normal activity – tracking calories consumed, steps taken, distances covered – and to ‘game-ify’ our pursuit of health and fitness. But this can go much further. Sensor-tagged pill bottles could alert physicians – or conceivably law-enforcement – if a patient has skipped a dose of their drugs. This could be useful for assisting aging patients who may forget their life-sustaining medication, or as a way of ensuring compliance by those who are required by law to maintain a specific drug regimen. And wearable devices can be powerful tools in monitoring more mundane health issues such as diabetes, heart arrhythmia, asthma, or hypoglycemia, and communicating not only with the wearer and their medical team, but also, in the event of an emergency, with first responders. The wide-scale collection of biometric data is already an integral part of routine screening and healthcare, but IoT-connected devices would not only allow for more consistent monitoring but also introduce a cost saving thanks to the potential for early intervention.
The possibilities for this technology seem endless, so what is powering this revolution? What new technology is enabling the creation of broad-spectrum IoT-devices? The answer is in the ‘small print’…
As most people are aware, the current Internet was made possible by one very important element: silicon. Although ubiquitous in semiconductors, transistors, switching devices, and electronic circuits, silicon-based components nonetheless remain comparatively expensive to produce, and there’s also a question of scalability. If we maintain our current model, trillions of sensor components would be required in order to bring such a broad range of devices online in a global market. But what if we shifted our thinking to a wholly different paradigm? What if we leveraged the mass-market availability of our conventional printing processes while still maintaining the functionality of high-powered microprocessors and integrated circuits? What, in short, if we printed the electronics needed to globally connect all of our devices?
For Thin Film Electronics ASA (also known as ThinFilm), a Norwegian company based in Oslo, printed electronics are a reality. Launched from a partnership with Intel, ThinFilm went on to establish the NFC Innovation Center in California’s Silicon Valley and created a name for itself by inventing the industry’s first rewritable, non-volatile memory for use in smart packaging. And very shortly thereafter a range of commercial printed sensors followed. Near Field Communication (NFC) sensors are electronically printed, low-cost wireless sensors that operate in a radius of approximately 4cm (1.5 inch) and enable communication between devices without the need for, or cost of, a direct Wi-Fi connection.(4) Although tap-and-go payment services like Apple Pay and Google Wallet are perhaps the most obvious examples of this technology ‘in the wild,’ NFC sensors actually have a broad range of uses and, when incorporated into smart packaging, are especially well suited to authentication, anti-theft, and supply-chain monitoring tasks. And, in this role, they are often attached to premium products to ensure brand protection – take, for example, the case of Barbadillo’s celebrated sherry, Versos 1891 Amontillado.
With a strictly limited supply of only 100 bottles released, Versos 1891 Amontillado commanded a comparatively hefty price tag at $8000 per bottle. Although die-hard sherry aficionados would not balk at the price, it was in the manufacturer’s interest to promote the authenticity of its product. Barbadillo, a multi-generational sherry producer in Sanlucar de Barrameda in southern Spain, addressed the problem by partnering with ThinFilm to use NFC tags to prevent counterfeiting and unauthorized refill of the iconic bottle. And so while the packaging was exquisite and oozed old-world charm – a crystal decanter fashioned into the shape of an inkwell, dressed up with a platinum neck collar and gold leaf etched into the glass – the protective technology of the NFC tag smoothly confided state-of-the-art new world security.
In other market sectors, combining NFC tags in smart packaging with a targeted digital marketing platform enables a more direct line of engagement with consumers in traditionally brand-loyal markets. Take, for example, the cosmetics, health, and beauty industries. By leveraging a customer’s purchase history and combining it with an analysis of their social media activity, powerful personalized recommendations can be generated. And these recommendations have been shown to translate directly into sales, as a report by Forbes underlines: ‘81% of US respondents say their friends’ social media posts directly influenced [their] purchase decision.’(5)
But perhaps most relevant to our own industry – contamination control – there is the market for wearable tech. Smart wearables have been on the market for a number of years but the playing field has evolved from the mere step counter or smart watch app. A casual search for smart wearables will now reveal garments that monitor the temperature, blood oxygen saturation, and heart rate of new-born infants, training clothes that detect which specific muscles are being worked in the gym, a commuter trucker jacket that interfaces with music and map apps to enhance the wearer’s commute, and even a bikini that monitors when a new coat of sunscreen should be applied.(6) And Heddoko – a Montreal-based company with an eye for the evolving market – has specialized in producing a range of breathable and washable wearable technology garments with integrated sensors that record movement, analyze movement precision, and offer live 3D feedback.(7) Originally intended for use in the sports arena, Heddoko’s system could take the place of a (non-judgmental) personal trainer or coach, offering athletes at every level the opportunity to improve their performance and to avoid injury.
But this technology could be leveraged far outside of the world of athletics. Heddoko’s analysis aims to record baseline standards and then provide metrics that enhance workplace safety and improve efficiency. Linked to an analysis dashboard in an app, the software quantifies a wearer’s range of motion, angular velocity and acceleration, biomechanics in all planes of movement, and risk of injury. And in our world of cleanroom precision, this could also include an analysis for risk of contamination.
So the days of ‘dumb’ protective gear may be numbered.
Smart wearables, customized for use in the cleanroom environment, could be the newest weapon in the contamination control arsenal. Although it might be some time before smart garments make it into every cleanroom changing room, once they do the stage will be set for optimized performance and increased efficiency. Both of which translate into significant improvement, benefitting both the cleanroom operatives who wear them and those who ultimately rely on our industry for goods and services. The future is here, it’s wearable, and it’s smart.
Do you own smart wearables? Do you have thoughts about sensor-enhanced garments? Does the prospect of clothing tracking your movements cause you concern? We’d love to know your thoughts – please enter them in the comments below.