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Robotic Exoskeletons could Turn Manufacturing Workers into Superhumans

Wearable robotics and exoskeletons can make workers stronger, faster and more efficient.

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It may sound like something out of a science fiction movie, but a few innovative manufacturers are experimenting with outfitting their workers with robotic appendages and exoskeleton suits. The technology is still in its infancy, but manufacturing executives may want to start taking notice of how wearable robotics could someday enable their workers to do their jobs more safely and effectively.

Gavin Barnes, lead engineer for the FORTIS Exoskeleton program at Lockheed Martin, explained that these systems can boost a manufacturing worker’s strength, endurance and productivity. He said the company’s FORTIS structure can support tools weighing up to 36 pounds, allowing workers to use the tool for a much longer period of time before needing to rest. “Because I don’t have to put all my effort and energy into holding that tool, I can focus instead on the craftsmanship at hand with really fine movement of a light tool,” Barnes said.

A recent report on wearable robotics said that industry will reach $2.1 billion by 2021. Exoskeletons are now being developed in the U.S., China, Korea, Japan and in Europe. It identifies industrial use as one of the primary markets, especially for aviation manufacturing and shipbuilding. These industrial exoskeleton suits run between $20,000 and $100,000. The FORTIS system starts at $23,000.

“BETWEEN TIME AWAY, RECUPERATION AND RECOVERY, ALL THAT WOULD REPRESENT HARD SAVINGS TO AN EMPLOYER.”

Not just for heavy loads, robotic devices can help workers perform their jobs with fewer safety risks and impacts on their bodies. Ed Potoczak, director of industry relations at software company IQMS, said manufacturing workers who do repetitive motions with heavy loads can create long-term stresses on the body. When done repetitively, even a 10-pound item can be taxing.

“When you reduce your injury incidences, your rates tend to go down…So between time away, recuperation and recovery, all that would represent hard savings to an employer,” Potoczak said.

Homayoon Kazerooni, a professor of mechanical engineering at California Berkeley who is known as “the father of modern exoskeletons,” has worked with the U.S. military to develop the Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton (BLEEX) and the Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC). He said there are still many tasks in factories that cannot be automated and could benefit from robotic devices to aid humans. “These are the workers who do unstructured jobs—filling up trucks with boxes, bending, squatting, using their whole bodies,” Kazerooni said.

One exoskeleton maker, Suit X, says their full body MAX system can reduce muscle force required to complete tasks by as much as 60%.

While new robotics are under development, it may be a while before Bobby Marinov, co-founder and author of the The Exoskeleton Report said that a “lack of communication” is one of the biggest barriers to growth in the exoskeleton market. He said exoskeletons are expensive to develop and have to be integrated with a soft human body that changes throughout the day, presenting multiple safety and operational concerns.

“Employers and insurers need to be convinced it is worth paying for exos,” Marinov said. Exoskeletons have to be made more comfortable to wear for long durations. There are so many hurdles that the industry still has to overcome.”

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About Craig Guillot

Craig Guillot
Craig Guillot is a business writer based in New Orleans, La. His work has appeared in Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, CNNMoney.com and CNBC.com. You can read more about his work at www.craigdguillot.com.