Even though Iron Man and RoboCop are fictional characters, exoskeletons are the real thing.  But they are being created for a slightly different purpose than entertainment, with greater value and practical purpose. No science-fiction movie gives an accurate definition of what scientists are trying to do. They get strong, they run fast, they jump over buildings. It’s difficult to entertain by showing workers who just need to work a little more efficiently, a little quicker.

The wearable robotics industry is projected to develop into a $2 billion global market within the next decade. What can you expect between then and now? And how can you apply this tech to your floor and see real ROI?

Hiromicho Fujimoto, president of ActiveLink, developed the Power Effector — a power-assist device with to ease the physical burden endured by workers.

The Power Effector from ActiveLink (Source: IndustryWeek.com)

According to various research, reports and industry estimates, worker overexertion works out to about $15 billion annually for employers in terms of lost time and workers’ compensation. Who wouldn’t want to turn to tech to curb that figure?

Lifting a 10- or 15-pound item over and over again tends to create long-term stresses on the body. An exoskeleton may allow a worker to lift more, more often, and more safely.  Reducing your injury incidences results in a reduction in time away from work in recuperation, which equals hard savings to an employer.

The leg frames Fujimoto created are designed more for disaster areas, allowing first responders an easier path through rubble or up steep inclines. But the backpack weight belts alleviate stress from the waist and hips while lifting heavy objects. They’re designed not to make workers stronger, but to ease the burden of tedious or monotonous work. And they seem perfect for factories.

There are drawbacks, of course. ActiveLink and other exoskeleton companies tend to rely heavily on motors, which DARPA reportedly told Fujimoto is not practical. The learning curve for radically new machines can be far longer than most manufacturers are used to, too.

Kazerooni — the father of modern exoskeletons — is inspired not by movies, but by real workers whose load is figuratively and literally lightened by such products. Kazerooni founded Ekso Bionics, among the current leaders in exoskeleton development, back in 2005. He later left the company and, in 2012, founded suitX, which is arguably Ekso’s biggest competitor.

Kazerooni has worked with the U.S. military to help develop the Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton (BLEEX) and the Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC). Now his attention is on introducing affordable exoskeletons to the market for child paraplegics and, of course, industrial workers.

According to Kazerooni, many tasks cannot be automated, but we can take care of the workers and have a better work environment. These are the workers who do unstructured jobs — filling up trucks with boxes, bending, squatting, using their whole bodies.  We can’t replace the workers; we just give them strength. It lets them work and have less risk of injury.

Worker wearing the MAX (Modular Agile eXoskeleton)
MAX (Modular Agile eXoskeleton) (Source: IndustryWeek.com)

The new suitX MAX — short for Modular Agile eXoskeleton — can decrease stress by about 50% for payloads of 30 or 40 pounds, and about 40% for payloads of as much as 100 pounds. If you’re picking up 50 pounds, this makes it feel like 20 or 25.

Kazerooni does not believe that all manufacturing jobs can be, will be, or need to be automated.  And, he does not believe that all workers will be replaced by robots.

Military and Industry Interest

More than anybody else, the U.S. military are using exoskeletons today, having worked with suitX and Lockheed Martin, among other companies.  Also, every major automotive manufacturer. Toyota and Honda are both developing power-assist walking devices.

Will exoskeletons catch on?  Well, no one could have predicted the rise of cell phones, tablets, 3-printing, or the idea of space travel.  Necessity is the mother of invention. Life imitates art.  Who knows what the future holds, really?

>> Read more by Matt LaWell, IndustryWeek, April 6, 2017

The Enhanced Manufacturing Worker