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Protex’s smart work clothes help to stay out of trouble

Imagine a world where your work clothing intelligently analyses your environment in real time. The race of smart wear is on, part of it is developed and produced in Estonia.

Norway is well-known for its oil, but the second-most important field in the Norwegian economy is fishing. Angles in the water, ships with trawls in tow, and so on. A traditional industry? Actually no. The fishing industry is the client of ultramodern smart textiles developed and produced in Estonia.

The textile producer Protex is about to create a uniform equipped with speech recognition, GPS positioning, fall-down identification, activity monitor, and many other features. The development of those is based on actual need and implementation and not created just to demonstrate what’s possible.

From hard times to innovative solutions

‘In 2014, our company was going through some hard times,’ says Helena Almqvist, Managing Director of Protex Balti AS. ‘We had many smaller clients and we sold goods with a low operating margin. We knew we had to change. We decided to move up the value chain.’

Although it did not seem like an easy road, Almqvist says that the transformation of Protex proves that innovation can happen in fields that seem very traditional, like the textile industry.

The first Ragnarok brand weatherproof clothing was made for the big Norwegian fishing corporations Leroy and Marine Harvest. The product was developed in cooperation with the Norwegian research agency Sintef. The mother company of Protex is based in Norway, but development and production take place at their Estonian head office and factory in Tallinn. Customers started to ask if Protex would be able to create something more high-tech.

At the same time, the Estonian Information and Communication Technology Cluster (ICT) called upon the ICT companies and representatives of the Tallinn University of Technology to embark on a smart product pilot together. Instead of creating yet another mobile app or technology appliance, the decision was taken to create a smart product in a sector that is traditional to its core. This is why the meeting with Protex took place. The Estonian smart electronics cluster ESTRONICS and electronics companies also joined the project. The cooperation led to the birth of Ragnarok 2.0.

Having a supercomputer in your command

Ragnarok 2.0 is a new generation textile product. First, it is of course a very practical piece of clothing: it offers breathable rain protection needed in the tough North-European climate. The clothing also has a visually noticeable colour, which is essential at sea.

But Ragnarok 2.0 is so much more than just clothing. Its ad added protection and productivity layer. One might say it is a bit like having a 6th sense or supercomputer in your command.

The company’s Sales Manager Urmas Reinsberg explains that the smart clothing is meant to fulfil the needs of its wearer. In the modern fishing industry, fish are grown in enormous cages, which are either situated in coastal waters or further at sea. The task of workers is to inspect the cages and compile short reports.

Ragnarok 2.0 clothing includes speech recognition. Workers can record their notes orally into the microphone inside the collar, which eliminates the need to look for a pen and paper on the stormy seas. It is, however, not only about user comfort − the notes in text form reach the headquarters much faster, where they can be analysed and reacted upon.

Safety is no less important. Movement detectors integrated into the clothing notify in real-time whether the worker falls down on a smooth surface or into the sea over the railing. The GPS signal immediately shows the position of the person. In addition, the clothing has safety lighting or a signal lamp that help to find the person in case of an accident. Monitors measure body temperature.

‘Hence all the features of Ragnarok 2.0 have been created on the basis of actual needs of the company and its employees,’ says Almqvist.

The benefits are threefold. ‘First and foremost it means improved job safety, which is important because the accidents at work in this branch of the industry are more serious than the average. Secondly, the workers can focus on what they are good at − fishermen are a bit like cowboys, they hate writing reports at sea. Thirdly, the management will receive much faster and more accurate date on the activities of the company,’ Almqvist explains.

Several prototypes created with customers

‘The company would not have reached this result alone,’ says Almqvist. Most importantly, they had best-in-class partners in the project. She praises the trust of the owners of the company who recognised the benefits of investing in innovation. And the clients, of course, were equally important.
‘We listened to the wishes and needs of the customer and tried to reach a result that would benefit them. It was a tight collaboration, for the first collection, we sent 6-7 prototypes to the clients who gave their feedback, which we then took into consideration in creating the next versions,’ she explains.

The smart clothing will directly benefit the fishing business as well as the clothes producer. ‘It is more efficient work, margins are rising,’ says Almqvist. And the fishermen at sea seem to be happy too, as they do not need to write any reports.

Keyword “collaboration”

If the Ragnarok clothing seems like something out of a science fiction movie, it is the right impression. Creating such a 21st century textile product would not have been possible through one company or organisation alone.

This is where the importance of collaboration of companies and clusters becomes evident. The creation of the prototype was supported by the European Regional Development Fund’s “Estonian ICT Cluster” and the “Smart Electronics Cluster ESTRONICS” in the framework of several projects. The participants included Protex Balti AS, Estonian ICT cluster, ESTRONICS, Tallinn University of Technology, Ericsson Estonia, Wazomby Labs and Estrotech.

‘We cannot get around the keyword of collaboration,’ says Reinsberg. This collaboration has been very successful as proven by the Swedish Business Award in the category of technological innovation, which they won last year. The Ragnarok work uniform was initially created as part of the project presented at the international conference Manufuture, which took place in Tallinn in October last year, but the work did not stop there.

‘It is a sign of success when partners decide to keep developing the product after the project has ended,’ explains Reinsberg. Protex and Tallinn University of Technology continue to develop the Ragnar smart clothing with real customers − a market leading Estonian maritime company and a well-known Norwegian fish farming company. The success story continues.

A unique collaboration experience for Tallinn University of Technology

The Department of Health Technologies at the Tallinn University of Technology is the inventor of the technology in smart clothing. It was a unique project for the department as they participated in the development of the whole solution.

‘We have participated in large-scale projects before, but until now we have not been involved in the development of such a big project. Normally researchers at university are working on their own projects, hence this kind of teamwork is an interesting and unique phenomenon where different counterparts worked together for a common goal,’ explains Ardo Allik, junior researcher at the Department of Health Technologies.

The project’s input from the Tallinn University of Technology came from more or less equal teamwork between the Department of Health Technologies and the Department of Computer Systems. Whereas the Department of Health Technology worked more on signal solution and the creation of algorithms, the hardware solution was developed by the Department of Computer Systems.

At the outset of the project, the department paid a visit to Norwegian fisheries. For the junior researcher it was fascinating to collaborate with companies, to see their concerns and problems and think about how to solve them instead of working alone in the lab. As a result of this common effort, a complete product was created, combining the quality working clothes produced by Protex and the technological solution invented by the Tallinn University of Technology. ‘It is a product you can touch and not some tiny part of something else,’ adds Allik.

Improving work safety was the goal

The functions of the fabric were agreed upon during initial meetings. Protex had their own vision of the fabric and the team of the Department of Health Technologies added their comments to it, focusing on what was doable, what had been done already and how the technologies have developed.

A huge role in the development of clothing technology was played by Norwegian fishermen and people who work in wet conditions. During meetings, representatives of fisheries explained their problems, focusing on what aspects of work safety could be improved upon. ‘They had specific issues, for example, a worker can fall into the water and it can be really complicated to write notes in wet conditions,’ explains Allik.

The Department of Health Technologies had experience in systems that survey human parameters, such as pulse- and temperature sensors. The main role of the researchers was to bring together the vision of Protex and the needs of fisheries in a way that would make the solution work. According to Allik, the public interest comes from the fact that they have developed a product with immediate benefits, which is related to real life and can be put to practical use.

The product develops in phases

It took six months to develop the prototype created by the Department of Health Technologies, but the clothing technology is still being developed. ‘As it is an innovative product, its development is a step-by-step process. Once the company starts using the product, we are looking for feedback to know which improvements to make,’ notes Allik.

The junior researcher explains that this project is part of the general trend of an individual approach in personal medicine, and in the future, the sector will move in the direction of everyone being able to receive more information about themselves. ‘The clothing technology developed for Protex is not a medical project per se, but it is linked to the aspects of creating an individual approach and making people’s everyday lives simpler and safer,’ says Allik.

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