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This Company Offers High-Tech Solutions For Blue-Collar Workers' Problems

According to contextere co-founder and CEO Gabe Batstone, his company is the “blue-collar whisperer.”

Batstone, whose career background includes such industries as aerospace, defense, and oil and gas production, says he “started to notice a few things that were the same from Afghanistan to Alabama” among industrial workers. Things such as how their jobs hadn’t changed in decades, or the complete absence of usable artificial intelligence (AI) in the production environment, or the reality of thirteen deaths per day among industrial workers – they all seemed to call for solutions. He and his partner Carl Byers (now the company’s Chief Strategy Officer) asked themselves what new tools were needed, and contextere - founded three years ago - was born. From their subsequent partnerships with companies such as Lockheed Martin and United Technologies Corporation (UTC), contextere set out to create a solution for blue collar workers that, as Batstone says, operates as a “digital mentor.”

Their premise is this, from their company literature: “Warm hands still touch cold steel. All the analyzing, optimizing and distribution of operational information will not succeed if the people doing the work do not have the skills and contextualized information required to execute effectively.”

The idea sounds simple. Think about an operator or a maintenance technician standing in front of a machine that’s not working right and asking, “Now what?” In the near future, contextere’s intelligent personal agent could be there to help answer that question. “We deliver information on a phone, tablet or wearable device,” says Batstone, directing the person on what action to take based on the current situation.

But it’s not so simple at all; the software involved isn’t just an electronic version of the operating manual or troubleshooting guide, but a “curation algorithm” that starts with the specific person being helped. The Blue Collar AI intelligent personal agent asks: what is that person’s role? How long has he or she done the job? What competencies or certifications do they have? From there, the algorithm pulls in the specifics of the machinery being worked on via Internet of Things (IoT) technology and enterprise data. This curated process delivers custom-tailored solutions – specifically, “intelligent guidance and other contextually important information” on the steps necessary to resolve the problem at hand.

The software is still in development. “We have our two major customers, both in the pilot phase,” says Batstone. At Lockheed Martin, they’re testing contextere’s Blue Collar AI software solution in their production of the C-130J Super Hercules cargo plane, as a job aid for their aircraft technicians. UTC is conducting trials in two areas – at their Carrier division, where they’re exploring different use cases for HVAC technicians, and in their climate, controls and security group, where installation personnel are able to ask questions of the algorithms, helping to reduce calls to the service desk.

The company is still grappling with some fundamental questions about their product, such as labor union acceptance of the tool, and the best initial application with new prospects. But Batstone believes there’s a strong market for it. “The first-time right rate in the industry today is about 75 percent,” he says. “Non-productive time for maintenance workers takes up 40 to 60 percent of their day, just from not having the right information available at the right times. We believe we can improve the first-time rate by 20 percent, and reduce non-productive time by 30 percent or more.” He adds, “the secret sauce is to understand the culture and the people of the industries we serve.

He sees his product solving a number of other challenges as well. “Pay attention to the skills gap,” he says. Batstone feels their Blue Collar AI solution can help close that gap by providing an “educational safety net.” The company sees all individuals as skilled, but often lacking the right information and other assistance at the times they need it.

“What tools are needed? What does this error code mean? Those are the kinds of questions we can answer on the spot,” says Batstone. He also sees their software improving efforts for worker safety and regulatory compliance. “We’re taking a step back and trying to rework the workplace,” he says, by asking, “What are humans good at?” contextere aims to resolve what humans aren’t good at by capturing and addressing systemic human error.

Their long-term vision is to sell their technology to manufacturers as software as a service, for which the companies would pay per user, per year.

“At the end of the day, it’s a convergence of wearables, AI and predictive analytics technologies,” says Batstone. “We’re gluing them together into something transformational for today’s industrial workforce.”

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