September 14, 2018
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 exploring exoskeletons designed to augment human strength and other abilities for military, medical and industrial purposes. Over time, these devices have become less clunky and expensive (from over $100k to under $10k in many cases) as well as more specialized and powerful.
Arguably, exoskeletons, not AR/VR, are the current star of enterprise wearables. Today, real companies with the funds to do so are transforming workers’ productivity and safety by introducing even just a few exoskeletons on the job site or factory floor. Ford recently made the largest order of industrial exoskeletons to date, with ABI Research expecting the market to rise from 67.29 million to $1.76 billion by 2028—exoskeletons have arrived.
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, adaptable to a wide variety of body shapes and sizes? Nevertheless, there are now tool-holding (partial) exoskeletons, exoskeletons for back support and sitting comfortably in mid-air, and even full-body, sci-fi-looking powered exosuits.
No post about exoskeletons can fail to mention this major driver for the advancement of the technology: Workplace injuries. Exoskeleton development has evolved from military and medical applications to industry, where wearable robotics are finding their sweet spot. Legacy industries 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. alone spends $21 billion 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 cost employers up to $56,000, wearable robot suits don’t seem so crazy. And major industrial players and startups alike recognize the growing opportunity:
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:
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 (currently $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’s first commercial product, the SEM Glove contained sensors that detected the wearer’s actions and activated motorized support when needed to grasp objects. Based on the company’s patented SEM (Soft Extra Muscle) technology, Ironhand ($9,250) is Bioservo’s newest product and a successor to the SEM Glove. It supports grip-intensive tasks while collecting data to categorize risky use cases and can be worn under a normal working glove. Bioservo bills Ironhand as “the world’s first soft robotic muscle strengthening system.” The company has signed contracts with General Motors, Airbus, NASA, and others.
With the Chairless Chair ($4,360) by noonee, employees can create a comfortable, more productive workspace at any time. 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. The Chairless Chair debuted on several manufacturing lines and is now in use globally by over 100 companies.
The Laevo (approx. $2,000) is a passive 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” putting on “a coat”—it adapts to your posture so the wearer has a lot of freedom of movement.
StrongArm’s FLx ErgoSkeleton ($298) is a data-driven upper-body exoskeleton with sensors that monitor posture and movement, providing feedback to ensure the wearer conforms to OSHA safe lifting guidelines. The solution promotes good posture and safe lifting by encouraging the user to bend at the knees and pivot instead of twist. The V-22 ErgoSkeleton ($629) adds cords to the FLx model; these loop over the shoulders and attach to a worker’s hands to restrict arm movements in such a way as to automate proper lifting. The passive exoskeleton shifts weight from the weak areas of the body to the user’s legs and core.
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.
Sarcos Robotics (Raytheon)
Not yet commercially available, Guardian XO is a robust, powered exosuit that’s said to enable the wearer to lift up to 200 pounds without exertion or strain. The XO features “scaled dexterous end effectors” and force feedback, allowing highly precise tasks with heavy tools or components. Sarcos says the Guardian XO and Guardian XO Max are “coming soon,” and the company recently secured its second development contract with the U.S. Air Force. Sarcos has also formed X-TAG, an industry-focused Exoskeleton Technical Advisory Group, along with executives from Bechtel, BMW, and more.
MATE (Muscular Aiding Tech Exoskeleton) by Comau is a spring-based exoskeleton designed to ease the shoulder muscles and provide lightweight yet effective postural support during manual and repetitive tasks. Designed in partnership with ÖSSUR and IUVO, a spin-off of The BioRobotics Institute, along with input from factory workers; MATE will be available in December 2018.
Household name LG is about to unveil the CLOi SuitBot, which looks like a pair of robotic pants and supports mobility by enhancing the power of the user’s legs. The exoskeleton can work alongside LG’s other service robots as part of a more advanced smart workforce scheme, and it uses AI to learn and evolve over time by analyzing biometric and environmental data. LG hasn’t revealed a price.
Ottobock is a German artificial limb manufacturer whose close competitor Össur helped Comau design MATE. Paexo is Ottobock’s new project, an upper-body exoskeleton that relieves the strain of repetitive overhead assembly work. Paexo has been tested on 30 Volkswagen plant workers and the automaker is considering using Paexo in series production.
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 even deploying exoskeletons. Here are some of the more recent use cases:
Lowe’s employees can spend up to 90% of their day lifting and moving bags of cement, buckets of paint, etc. So, last spring 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 3-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.
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 even just one shoulder injury.
Just last month following 16 months of testing, Ford went into deployment mode, ordering 75 EksoVests for employees all over the world. This is 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 the overhead tasks Ford assembly line workers perform millions of times a year. Additionally, Ford is testing a motion-tracking bodysuit and camera solution at one of its plants in Spain, with the goal of making data-driven modifications to workstations and vehicle production processes that reduce physical stress.
For as long as Ford, Boeing has been experimenting with exoskeletons to address the problems automation can’t solve. Wiring a Boeing 777, 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.
Though still in the experimental phase, 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 mechanics in South Carolina have actually gone through training on the EksoVest, as Boeing hopes to roll out the tech to more workers in 2019. Apparently, Boeing employees love the 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 over the next three to five years, but it takes a lot of testing! A good sign is the interest of the ATSM International, a body that sets manufacturing standards and has 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.
The Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit (EWTS) is an annual conference dedicated to the use of wearable technology for business and industrial applications. As the leading event for enterprise wearables, EWTS is where enterprises go to innovate with the latest in wearable tech, including heads-up displays, AR/VR/MR, body- and wrist-worn devices, and even exoskeletons. The 5th annual EWTS will be held October 9-11, 2018 at The Fairmont in Austin, TX. For more details, please visit the conference website.