July 17, 2018
One cannot begin a blog post talking about workplace safety without sharing some statistics: According to OSHA, there are more than 4,700 worker fatalities in the U.S. each year, and nearly three million work-related injuries and illnesses. U.S. employers spend $95 billion annually on workers’ compensation insurance, and shell out over $20 billion in workers’ comp fees. It’s not just about the money—injuries and illnesses hurt productivity, with employees having to miss work, restrict their activities, or even transfer jobs.
Those three million workers aren’t necessarily doing anything wrong. The work performed on construction sites and in factories is physically demanding. Over time, manual labor takes a toll on the human body, no matter one’s form while doing a task. So, it’s understandable that enterprises would be willing to spend a lot of money to augment human abilities with wearable robotics.
Exoskeletons are mechanical frames worn on the body to alleviate individuals’ physical burdens and enhance their abilities. There are full-body suits as well as partial exoskeletons like bionic arms and motor-assisted gloves. Exoskeletons can be powered (motorized) or not, but the idea is to make it physically easier for workers to do their jobs. (Exoskeleton technology originated in the military defense sector and has proved useful for assisting the physically disabled, paralyzed, and elderly.)
Exoskeletons are an ideal solution for addressing repetitive stress and overexertion injuries, the most common and expensive types of workplace injuries stemming from doing the same motion repeatedly; or from pulling, lifting, pushing, holding or carrying with improper technique or great strain on the job. Exoskeleton technology can make these activities easier by taking pressure off workers’ muscles and nerves, and preventing them from compromising their form. With greater ease comes the ability to work faster and get more done, and of course less risk of injury.
While there are many prototypes and even working exoskeletons currently in production, only a small number of these superhuman suits have been deployed in real industrial work environments. Interest is growing, however, among major enterprises in a range of industries and verticals. The following companies are either developing or testing exoskeleton technology today:
In 2017, the home improvement retailer set up a 3-month trial in one of its Virginia stores, where four employees wore non-motorized exoskeletons to lift objects and stock shelves.
Lowe’s workers can spend up to 90% of their time moving and lifting heavy items like bags of cement and buckets of paint. Looking to make the workday easier for employees, Lowe’s partnered with Virginia Tech to develop a simple exoskeleton. They came up with a harness-like device with carbon fiber rods that act as artificial tendons; bending with the user and storing energy as he goes to pick up an object, and releasing that energy back into the user’s back and legs when he stands up.
Lowe’s also had the employees involved in the trial wear a headset that senses brain activity, revealing whether the wearer enjoyed using the exoskeleton or not. Direct feedback from employees was positive—workers found the tech to be helpful and comfortable enough to wear all day. Lowe’s also believes the technology could be a selling point in recruiting new employees.
The Korean automaker has been building a line of robotic human exoskeletons to supplement or augment the abilities of manual laborers and help paraplegics walk again. One of the exoskeleton models, the Hyundai Universal Medical Assist or HUMA, is designed to aid every limb, supporting up to 88 pounds of a user’s weight. The suit can help fully mobile users lift heavier objects than normal and run at speeds up to 7.5 mph. Another suit, the H-Wex (Hyundai Waist Exoskeleton,) is more of a safety device, designed to reduce the toll of repetitive motions originating from the waist. By giving auto workers, for example, more lifting power or just helping them endure long periods on their feet, the H-Wex can prevent back injuries and fatigue.
Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering (DSME)
Exoskeletons can reduce the physical stress of everyday activities by diverting or absorbing the forces that normally affect the body, and they can also endow users with superhuman abilities like the strength to carry loads not normally manageable by a single human being. That is what attracted Daewoo to the technology several years ago: The Korean shipbuilder, maker of some of the world’s largest vessels, showcased its first prototype exoskeleton in 2013.
Made of aluminum alloy, carbon and steel, DSME’s exoskeleton weighs about 60 pounds but is entirely self-supporting, enabling users to lift heavy metal objects up to 66 pounds and still walk at a regular pace. The device is powered, with a three-hour battery life, and supports accessories for specific tasks (like a small attachable crane.) In testing, shipyard workers have generally approved of the technology, which is continually being improved in an effort to achieve a target lifting capacity of 220 pounds.
From full-on robosuits to robotic limbs: In 2016, Airbus revealed a strap-on mechanical arm intended to help assembly line workers execute heavy lifting with ease, even perform superhuman feats like machining parts of a jet hundreds of times a shift.
Airbus’ “third arm” exoskeleton assists workers in its Hamburg plant in using heavy drilling devices—they’re able to drill the 600 holes needed for each wing of an aircraft faster and be more comfortable. The technology cuts down on the costs of building airliners and keeps older workers in employment by increasing their strength.
The multinational corporation believes technologies like exoskeletons, smart glasses and 3D printing will be key in the production of Airbus aircrafts going forward and to achieving the goal of doubling the current output of its A320 aircraft.
The exoskeleton devices mentioned thus far have been prototypes developed in-house, in use by those organizations or not yet for sale. But there are companies that design and sell exoskeletons for industrial use. Ekso Bionics, for instance, has a few enterprise products: The EksoZeroG, a bionic arm that has appeared on construction sites, and the EksoVest, an upper body device for tasks above chest height.
Swiss firm Noonee’s Chairless Chair is popular among automotive companies, including BMW and Audi. In automotive assembly, workers often have to work in unnatural positions (ex. overhead or under a vehicle,) which can lead to serious health issues, as can spending much of the day alternately standing and bending. Noonee’s wearable ergonomic chair allows the wearer to essentially sit in midair and still walk around freely. The device supports Audi factory workers when they bend or lift, helping their body posture, preventing strain and eliminating the fatigue of standing.
As in the aerospace industry, exoskeleton technology can provide better working conditions for an aging automotive workforce.
Lockheed Martin is serious about human augmentation. Though the technology is still in the early adopter phase, Lockheed has an industrial production line: The Fortis exoskeleton is an unpowered, lightweight suit developed for environments like shipyards and heavy construction sites.
The Fortis Tool Arm is available as a separate product, a partial exoskeleton that transfers the weight, vibration and torque of holding industrial power tools from the operator’s body to the ground, making the tools feel weightless. Users, who commonly work overhead or on vertical surfaces, can produce higher quality work with less risk of muscle fatigue and musculoskeletal injury.
There is also the computer-controlled Fortis Knee Stress Release Device (K-SRD,) which reduces the energy soldiers need to cross terrain, kneel for long periods of time, and climb with heavy loads.
With exoskeletons, you get the best of both worlds: The superior strength of a robot combined with a human’s ability to reason, adapt, innovate and improvise. Human workers are not in competition with automation and robotics. The best enterprise IoT ecosystems don’t pit the two against one another but rather use emerging technologies like robotics to assist, relieve, empower and safeguard real workers.