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Exoskeletons Get Real: The Ultimate Wearable Technology?

Written BY

Emily Friedman

July 29, 2020

Exoskeletons are nothing new and far from science fiction; in fact, researchers began developing exoskeletons for military use as early as the 1960s. For the last decade, engineers have been working on exoskeletons designed to support and even augment physical activity for military, medical and industrial purposes. Over time, these devices have become less bulky and expensive (from over $100k to under $10k in many cases) as well as more specialized and powerful.

Today, real companies are transforming workplace productivity and safety by introducing even just a few exoskeletons on the warehouse or factory floor. According to ABI Research, more than 7,000 exoskeletons were sold in 2018, the same year that Ford made headlines for the largest order of exoskeleton units to date. Last year, Toyota became the first company to make exoskeletons mandatory PPE for certain tasks. (Watch this video of Toyota's Marisol Barrero from EWTS 2019.) While it may seem the most successful rollouts are in automotive manufacturing; aviation, aerospace and other manufacturers as well as construction and engineering firms, warehouses and more are actively testing the technology, as well.

Exoskeletons find their sweet spot

Combining the power of robots with the intelligence and adaptability of humans sounds great, but the execution – designing machines that conform to how we’re shaped and the way we move – is challenging. How do you make a machine both lightweight and flexible for a wide variety of body shapes and sizes? Nevertheless, there are now tool-holding exoskeletons, exos for back support and sitting comfortably in mid-air, and even full-body, sci-fi-looking powered exosuits. New exoskeletons and "ergoskeletons" - increasingly lighter, made of plastic, aluminum and carbon fiber elements, and easy to put on and take off - are announced nearly every month.

No post about exoskeletons can fail to mention this major driver for the advancement of the technology: Workplace injuries. Legacy industries with aging workforces like manufacturing that are changing due to automation but still rely heavily on human input; industries like construction and shipbuilding in which productivity hasn’t risen in decades; and industries where awkward positions, repetitive motion, and overexertion are common and employers shell out billions on workers’ compensation are particularly ripe for exoskeleton technology.

Assembling, building, moving… the heavy-duty operations of industry in which workers are required to wield heavy power tools, perform overhead tasks, stand for long periods of time, etc. breed accidents, injuries and long-term musculoskeletal stress. The U.S. spends over $50 billion per year on workplace injuries, the price tag of healthcare treatment and lost worker productivity. When you consider that a single rotator cuff surgery can take out a worker for up to seven months and costs employers up to $56,000, wearable robot suits don’t sound so crazy. And major industrial players and startups alike recognize the growing opportunity:

The Market

Where once there were a handful of companies working on industrial exoskeletons, the exoskeleton market today has become quite crowded. Here are some of the companies developing and selling partial or full-body, powered or unpowered exoskeletons:

*All prices approximate

Tool-holding/handling

Lockheed Martin

The large defense firm has long been interested in human augmentation, mainly in the military arena. In 2014, Lockheed introduced its first industrial exoskeleton product FORTIS ($24,750). FORTIS, a passive (unpowered), lightweight exoskeleton that transfers loads from a standing or kneeling position to the ground, makes heavy tools like a giant power drill feel weightless to the operator. Lockheed also sells the FORTIS Tool Arm ($7,149), which reduces muscle fatigue to allow the use of heavy hand tools for long shifts.

Bioservo

Based on the company’s patented SEM (Soft Extra Muscle) technology, Ironhand ($9,250) is Bioservo’s signature professional product and a successor to the SEM Glove. Consisting of a glove and power pack worn in a backpack or on the hip, Ironhand supports grasp-intensive tasks, strengthening human grip for repetitive and static work. Bioservo bills Ironhand as "the world's first active soft exoskeleton for the hand." Last year, the company signed distribution agreementts with Rhino Assembly for the U.S. market and GOBIO in France.

Support

noonee

Using the Chairless Chair ($4,360) by noonee, employees can create a comfortable, more productive workspace anytime. The lower-body exoskeleton is designed to prevent back pain for workers who spend a large part of the day standing by essentially allowing the wearer to lock in and sit in mid-air while doing her work. With Chairless Chair 2.0, noonee reduced the product's weight, expanded fit, increased comfort, and designed accessories such as a belt, seat pads, leg straps, shoe connectors and a vest.

Laevo

The Laevo V2 ($2,500) is a passive chest and back-support exoskeleton for workers who have to frequently bend forward and lift objects. It works by transferring force from the upper body through the straps and to the thighs, thereby reducing pressure on the user’s spine and back by up to 40%. Laevo describes wearing its exoskeleton as “just like a coat”—it adapts to your posture so the wearer has a lot of freedom of movement. The company markets to agriculture, military, heavy industry, logistics, automotive, healthcare, warehousing and construction.

StrongArm Technologies

StrongArm’s FLX ErgoSkeleton and V22 ErgoSkeleton ($300-$700) are listed as discontinued on 3M's website, but the FLX was a sensor-equipped upper-body exoskeleton that provided feedback to ensure the wearer conformed to OSHA safe lifting guidelines. The V22 added cords to restrict arm movement in such a way as to automate proper lifting. StrongArm said it was the first passive exoskeleton to shift weight from weak areas of the body to the user's legs and core. The company appears to have pivoted to its FUSE Risk Management Platform, which now includes physical distancing and contact tracing features due to COVID-19.  

SuitX

SuitX has three models of industrial exoskeletons: backX ($4,000), legX ($6,000) and shoulderX ($4,000)--individual modules that when worn together form the full-body MAX exoskeleton. With backX to help with lifting heavy loads, legX to support crouching for extended periods of time, and shoulder to alleviate overhead work; the full MAX system allows wearers to perform lower back-, leg- and shoulder-intensive tasks with less risk of injury.

Levitate Technologies

The Levitate AIRFRAME is an upper-body, individually custom-fitted exoskeleton for workers who regularly engage in repetitive and static arm motion and the exoskeleton of choice for Toyota, which has been able to dramatically reduce spending on injuries due to overhead tasks. Mechanically powered by a system of pulleys and weighing a little more than five pounds, the AIRFRAME lowers exertion levels by transferring weight from the shoulders, neck and upper back to the outside of the hips.

Full-body

Sarcos Robotics (Raytheon)

Guardian XO is a robust, battery-powered exoskeleton that’s said to enable the wearer to lift up to 200 pounds without restricting freedom of movement. The XO “makes light work of heavy-duty tasks" by compensating for gravity and inertia: Motors augment the user's lifting capabilities, while clutches, actuators and software control the exoskeleton and end-effectors act as its hands. There's even a hands-free mode allowing the operator to lock the suit's arms and perform dexterous tasks with her own hands while still carrying a heavy load. You can reserve a Guardian XO today on Sarcos' website, though mass production hasn't yet begun. The cost will be based on a one- to three-year lease ($100k-$150k annually).

Comau

MATE (Muscular Aiding Tech Exoskeleton) by Comau is a spring-based exoskeleton designed to assist the arms and shoulders and provide lighteight yet effective postural support during manual and repetitive tasks. Designed in partnership with ÖSSUR and IUVO along with input from factory workers, the MATE comes in two sizes with multiple adjustments.

HeroWear

HeroWear markets the HeroWear Apex as "the world's first exosuit for all, built from the ground up for both men and women." (Related post: Wearable and Immersive Tech and the Female Workforce) The back-assist, textile-based, dual-mode exosuit uses a band-based mechanism to reduce over 50 pounds of strain on the back with every lift and can be adjusted to fit workers of all sizes thanks to its modular components.

New entrants

LG

In 2018/2019, LG announced/debuted the CLOi SuitBot, a partial exoskeleton that looks like a cross between a lower-back brace and pair of robotic pants. SuitBot augments lower-body strength and according to LG uses AI to learn and evolve over time. It doesn't appear that LG went to production on the SuitBot, but the idea of the exoskeleton working alongside LG's other service robots as part of a more advanced smart workforce scheme is mention-worthy.

Ottobock

Ottobock, one of the world's largest prosthetics companies and maker of the Paexo Shoulder, a passive exoskeleton that relieves the strain of repetitive overhead assembly and building work. (Close competitor Össur helped Comau design MATE.) Ottobock offers three test package options and has been trialed by Volkswagen and Royal Huisman among others. The company recently worked with Hilti on the EXO-O1, a new exoskeleton for the construction industry. Hilti is currently in real-world job testing, planning to bring the exoskeleton to market later this year.

The future of manual labor begins now: Use cases

Betting on the promise of wearable robotics to increase productivity and reduce injuries, a number of construction, manufacturing and logistics companies have begun testing and deploying exoskeletons. Here are some of the more well-known use cases:

Lowe’s

Lowe’s employees can spend up to 90% of their day lifting and moving bags of cement, buckets of paint, etc. So, in 2017 the home improvement retailer teamed up with Virginia Tech to develop a lift-assist exosuit that would make the workday easier. The result: A kind of harness-meets-backpack with carbon-fiber rods running down the back and thighs. The rods flex and straighten when the user bends or stands, absorbing energy that’s then delivered to the worker when needed. During a three-month pilot, test subjects wore enjoyment-sensing headsets in addition to providing verbal feedback about the exosuits.

The promised benefits are myriad for Lowe’s: Improved customer service (store staff can fetch items for customers), reduced costs (fewer injuries, reduced insurance premiums), and even better recruitment.

Ford

In 2017, four employees at a Ford plant in Missouri tried out the EksoVest by Ekso Bionics, an unpowered, adjustable exoskeleton vest that can help workers do things like install carbon cans on cars suspended above them at a rate of 70 cars/hour. The United Automobile Workers Union actually paid for the trial to see if exoskeletons could really reduce common injuries among autoworkers.

Ford has been interested in wearable robotics since 2011, particularly for preventing shoulder injuries, which take the longest to recover from. The ROI is there: If one $5,000 EksoVest lasts three years, the cost comes out to 12 cents/hour/employee. That’s around the same price as a pair of disposable gloves and far less than the cost of a single shoulder injury. In 2018 following 16 months of testing, Ford went into deployment mode, ordering 75 EksoVests for employees all over the world. This was the largest order of industrial exoskeletons ever placed and the first step in Ford’s plans to launch exoskeletons in factories worldwide.  

The EksoVest provides up to 15 pounds of lift assistance and support per arm during overhead tasks. Additionally, Ford has been testing exoskeletons at its plant in Valencia, Spain, a country which saw over a million workplace accidents in 2019. There, Ford has been mainly testing a prototype exoskeleton for the back and an upper arm exoskeleton.

Boeing

For as long as Ford, Boeing has been experimenting with exoskeletons to address the problems automation can’t solve. Wiring a Boeing plane, for instance, a task so complex only a highly skilled human can perform it, is a perfect opportunity for an exoskeleton. What attracts Boeing to exoskeletons are not only rising insurance premiums but also the possibility of improving the lives of its technicians who train for years to do their jobs and whose absence or retirement would be a hit to the aerospace giant’s productivity.

For years now, Boeing has been running pilots to match the right exoskeleton to the right type of work and studying years of safety data to see where injuries are most likely to occur. Boeing trialed the EksoVest in South Carolina, Missouri and Washington in 2017/2018 and last year equipped mechanics at twin Dreamliner factories with exoskeletons.

Challenges still ahead

For every new type of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) there is process of adoption, and it’s no different with exoskeletons. The wearable robotics space is evolving fast; prices will continue to fall and the exoskeletons themselves will become lighter and more powerful, but it will take a lot of testing. A good sign is the interest of the ATSM International, a body that sets manufacturing standards and created a special committee of 90 organizations focused on exoskeletons and exosuits. Just as walking in areas of a job site without the proper PPE is forbidden, one day workers on construction sites and in warehouses and manufacturing plants will be forbidden to operate tools without the appropriate exoskeleton.

More exoskeleton companies to check out:

HumaniX

HMT

German Bionic

FM LOGISTIC (Ergoskel)

Innophys

Skelex

Newndra Innovations (Jaipur Belt)

Japet (Atlas)

Related: Watch the industrial exoskeleton panel from EWTS 2019

Further Reading
Solving the Skills Crisis with Augmented Reality
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