TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Workers used to complain they were just cogs in a machine. Nothing much will change, experts say, but the workers will be parts in a higher-tech machine.

The industrial Internet that is coming, says Plex vice president-development Jason Prater, will have people on the shop floor wearing vests, watches or glasses that turn them into sensors, feeding information into the sophisticated enterprise resource planning systems controlling the high-tech manufacturing of the future.

That is not to say people are just machines.

“People are more flexible than machines, and cheaper to change,” he says, and they are critical to the manufacturing process.

Innovation at Plex, which has sold ERP systems to some 400 companies, is driven by three trends, says Prater: cloud-based data, which connects businesses around the globe as well as vertically through the supply chain; connectivity that feeds data into the cloud; and mobility, which today means tablets and smartphones.

“The next phase of mobility is wearable technology,” says Prater. Google Glass is an early example, allowing workers to gather information with a glance instead of carrying around a tablet.

“A worker can walk up to a machine and see that it needs adjustment,” he says. “It will allow seamless interactions. They will solve a lot of problems on the shop floor.”

A wearable safety vest will prevent accidents between machines and employees.

“People still make up a huge chunk of manufacturing,” Prater says, and “wearing sensors is going to be the future. The PC will be dead on the shop floor. Workers will interact with the machines in a more natural way, without touching them.”

Parts also will wear sensors, he says. Wireless Bluetooth devices about the size of a quarter used for tracking location will work better than the radio-frequency systems of the past, which he calls a failure. In the future, those devices also will record information such as temperature, humidity and vibration that will inform the ERP system and help it make decisions.

When he worked at Metaldyne, says Prater, rust could be a problem on parts that were stamped long before they were painted. Parts tagged with a humidity sensor could warn the system of potential money-losing problems.

Furthermore, says Prater, parts or modules might wear their sensors not only down the supply chain, so the next customer knows what he is getting, but also into the vehicle itself. Recorded information on use could help resolve warranty and liability issues.

Robots on the shop floor already talk to each other. That idea will grow so machines around the world in different companies working together will talk to each other, working out the most efficient way to produce goods, says Prater.

“Innovation goes up and down the value chain,” he says. “Innovations down in Tier 3 or 4 need to work their way up.”

Plex started with in-house manufacturing software in a component plant that later was purchased by American Axle & Mfg. Now, says Prater, it provides manufacturing companies computing services, “like SAP, but cheaper and faster.”

Plex’s ERP system is the environment for the robots and software that run an assembly plant, enabling the future vision of wearable technology that he says is about five years away.