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Exoskeletons in the workplace

Once again, technology is extending what the human body can do. There's plenty of engineering involved, optimized for business uses of physical augmentation: power boosts, kinetic energy storage, and "augmented joints" that can lock on demand and distribute static loads while the worker is in an awkward position. It’s business transformation with real transformers.

Digital technology has rapidly expanded the potential productivity of human workers, but when it comes to physical activities, corporal limitations put a cap on what can be accomplished. A given person can only lift only so much weight or hold a certain position for only so long without risking expensive injuries. Technology is coming to the rescue again, making it possible for individuals to do more physical work safely.

Real life has a way of catching up with fiction. The 1970s TV series “Six Million Dollar Man” opened with a title sequence claiming that science could rebuild a human to be “better, stronger, faster.” Technology now can augment the physical functions of the human body in ways that indeed make a person better, stronger, and faster. And one of the primary approaches to such augmentation is through the use of exoskeletons.

Like other mammals, humans carry their load-bearing structures—their bones—internally. This is not the only solution used by animals, however. Insects and crustaceans wear their “bones” on the outside in the form of a hard shell, which biologists call an “exoskeleton.” When it comes to increasing the powers of the human body, it’s far easier to strap on a device to the outside of the torso and limbs than it would be to implant something alongside the bones. For this reason, researchers have focused on exoskeletons to add to a person’s physical powers.

Much of the research into exoskeletons has been to compensate for impairments, with impressive results. Powered prosthetic arms replace a person’s ability to grasp and manipulate objects. Prosthetic legs make it possible for paralyzed individuals to walk again.

Augmenting the power of a healthy individual is a much bigger market, however, with an enormous potential return on investment. Enterprise applications for exoskeletons are growing rapidly—and not just in manufacturing. (Though there is plenty of interest for the manufacturing use case: The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology reports 23 private companies, 14 universities, and nine government agencies are represented on an ASTM committee developing the first consensus standards.) One surprising aspect of many of these developments is that they are focused not on helping a worker handle greater weights but rather reducing fatigue and avoiding workplace injuries.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), direct workers’ compensation costs total about $1 billion per week for injuries and illness in the United States alone. Loss of productivity and other indirect costs (such as hiring temporary workers who need more training) boost the total to more than $250 billion per year. It should come as no surprise that corporations are willing to invest in technology to help reduce these costs. While these exoskeleton devices cost four or five figures apiece, it is easy to see how a cost analysis could favor their adoption.

One size does not fit all

Many types of exoskeletons are already in use in corporations worldwide, with many more under development. While the term may make you think of the massive power loader worn by the Ripley character in the movie “Aliens,” it turns out that there is a wide spectrum of solutions. Some of them are surprisingly meek and mild in comparison.

One useful way to tour the possibilities is to consider some of the more important design decisions that differentiate the different products.

Full body vs. partial

The Guardian XO is a full-body exoskeleton with a futuristic look. (Credit: Sarcos)

Figure 1. The Guardian XO is a full-body exoskeleton with a futuristic look. (Credit: Sarcos)

The “Aliens” exoskeleton was essentially a full-scale robot with a human pilot who rode inside. Some of today’s real-world solutions have a similar full-body scope designed to augment legs, torso, and arms. For example, the Guardian XO from Sarcos Robotics assists arms and legs. The device is scheduled to ship “soon,” according to the company’s website, and the latest iteration includes casings that resemble body armor.

A different approach is to augment only that part of the body where it’s needed. A good example of this comes from SuitX. The company offers three different components: ShoulderX, BackX, and LegX. As you can infer from their names, each unit augments one part of the wearer’s body. The three parts can be combined to create a full-body solution if needed.

Load bearing vs. load shifting

Another important design difference is what is done with the workload. In some cases, the exoskeleton takes all the weight onto its own structure. Other devices are designed to redistribute the loads to other parts of the worker’s body.

For example, Audi and BMW have been exploring the use of the Chairless Chair from Noonee. This is a frame that straps onto the back of a worker’s legs so that the individual is free to walk around. When the worker needs to squat in order to perform a task, it is possible to lock the chair into place and transfer the worker’s weight directly to the floor. This makes it possible to maintain an awkward position for extended periods without fatigue or risk of injury.

In contrast, German Bionic Systems has created the Cray X, a powered back support. It attaches at the shoulders, hips, and thighs to help distribute loads when lifting, taking some of the strain off the lower back.

Augmented vs. replacement

Another design consideration is whether you want to augment a worker’s existing body parts or provide an additional member that can be used more or less independently. For example, repeated use of a tool held above one’s shoulders can be a source of strain and injury, even with relatively lightweight tools. Ekso Bionics has products that take both approaches.

The EksoVest is a lightweight backpack (under 10 pounds) that also straps to the wearer’s upper arms. It relies on springs to help workers hold tools over their head. It is designed for tools that weigh from 5 to 15 pounds. Ford is using the EksoVest in 15 of its manufacturing plants.

In contrast, the EksoZeroG is a third arm. It clamps to scaffolding or other structures in the work area and provides support for heavy tools. It holds a tool up to 36 pounds in weight; all the worker has to do is direct the tool. The tool feels essentially weightless to the worker, claims the company, which reduces fatigue and chances of injury.

Rigid vs. soft

Going back to the “Aliens” archetype, we tend to think of heavy-metal, hydraulic exoskeletons that are more steampunk than haute couture. However, another important design consideration is rigid versus soft exoskeleton structure.

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Like the other devices discussed above, the Hercule is a development platform from French company RB3D. A solid hip structure is attached to two legs with foot plates; the powered device can walk faster than 3 miles per hour while supporting loads of up to 88 pounds.

On the other hand, there are soft devices designed to augment human physical abilities. The Ironhand from Bioservo Technologies is a glove that can increase a worker’s grip for extended periods. The amount of force can be adjusted to accommodate the tool in use and the intended task. A backpack provides the power and contains motors that pull on thin lines attached to the glove’s fingers, similar to how tendons attach to human hands.

Active vs. passive

Another important difference between exoskeleton solutions is whether they are active or passive. An active device relies on an external power source to energize actuators that provide the augmented force. Devices can use electric motors, pneumatics, hydraulics, or even artificial muscles that are activated by electricity.

LowesFigure 2. Lowe’s is developing a backpack that stores kinetic energy as an employee bends over and then makes that energy available as the employee lifts an object. (Credit: Lowe’s) 

Passive devices take a different approach. They take the kinetic motion of the wearer and store this energy to be released when required to perform a task. One excellent example is an exoskeleton under development by Lowe’s in partnership with Virginia Tech. This is a backpack that extends down to the wearer’s thighs. Torsion bars are mounted in the back, and they store energy as the wearer bends over to pick up an item. This energy is then released to assist the worker to return to standing with the extra load of the item. Essentially, the stomach muscles get to contribute to the lifting action.

More to come

New design features are on the way that could make exoskeletons even more valuable in the workplace. Several of these systems—including the Ironhand—also collect data while in use. This can provide useful information for ergonomics analytics and identifying situations that put workers at risk of injury.

Many of these devices also help train workers to perform tasks more safely, by constraining their movements so that they have to perform the motion “the right way.” Exoskeletons may also play a greater role in training. For example, the Teslasuit contains haptic devices that provide physical feedback to the wearer. According to research studies, adding haptic feedback while someone learns a new task can help them learn faster and perform better.

Researchers at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied and Sciences are measuring human physiological signals such as heart and breathing rate while the subject wears a soft exoskeleton to perform various tasks. This information was then used to configure the suit on when and where to apply assistive force during the action. In one study, just 20 minutes of data collection led to refinements that reduced the metabolic cost of the task by 17 percent. Making exoskeletons “smart” could make them even more efficient.

Exoskeletons are still too expensive to warrant having one on hand just to move a case of copier paper, but this technology is likely to reach into more and more aspects of enterprise operations where physical exertion is a significant part of the task. And we all truly may become better, stronger, and faster.

Exoskeletons: Lessons for leaders

  • Exoskeletons rely on a wide range of designs to address specific needs in business and industry.
  • The technology can be expensive—you can tell that from the number of company websites that suggest "ask for a demo" rather than displaying a price list—but the return on investment can be good when you consider the costs of on-the-job injuries.
  • Exoskeletons are getting smarter and more versatile, helping them combat worker fatigue and unsafe work practices.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.