17 Jan Industrial Exoskeletons Give Workers a Lift
The Wall Street Journal
Ford, Boeing, Toyota and others are equipping workers with wearable devices that enhance strength and endurance. “Iron Man”-style powered suits could be next
In the weld shop of Toyota Motor North America’s 1.8-million-square-foot plant in Woodstock, Ontario, amid the clanking of robotic arms and the occasional spray of sparks, two workers inspect the steel frame of a future RAV4.
The men raise their arms overhead as they move ultrasonic wands over metal to test the integrity of dozens of welds. Until a few months ago, this task was performed by seated workers wielding hammers and chisels. But the latest RAV4 uses a lighter, stronger steel that requires ultrasonic testing. A new frame arrives every 60 seconds. The prolonged reaching is shoulder-breaking work, the kind that can lead to debilitating injuries and decreased productivity.
But these workers are assisted by exoskeletons, wearable devices made by Levitate Technologies, a San Diego-based startup. The upper-body frames use a system of springs, cables and pulleys to transfer weight from the arms to the outside of the hips, easing the strain of overhead work. When a worker raises his arms, the exoskeleton provides a counterweight that makes the arms feel buoyant, as if the upper body is suspended in water. The system gradually releases as the limbs are lowered, allowing the arms to hang unassisted.
“It’s so futuristic, you just look at it and you kind of laugh because you don’t know what it is,” said Nic Vanderbaan, 41, an 11-year veteran of the plant who has been using the exoskeleton for almost three months. “But once you get used to using it, it’s just like a piece of you.”
Since the 1960s, exoskeletons have helped disabled people to walk. In the last few years, auto makers, aerospace companies and other manufacturers have been evaluating their use for workers. Exoskeletons may one day become commonplace on factory floors, construction sites and film sets. Dentists, photographers and electricians could use them to hold their arms up for extended periods. If prices come down, exoskeleton makers believe individuals will buy or rent the devices for household chores and outdoor activities.
In November, Toyota’s Woodstock plant began requiring 24 workers in the weld shop to use exoskeletons. On Monday, Toyota’s Princeton, Ind., plant will follow suit, and by March, nearly 200 of that plant’s 7,369 workers will be required to use the devices. “We identified risks of working overhead as a primary factor and contributor to injuries, so we tried to find ways to eliminate those risks, and the exoskeleton fit the bill quite well,” said Marc Duplessis, the Woodstock plant’s health and safety manager.
Toyota appears to be the first large manufacturer to require the use of exoskeletons, but it’s not alone in experimenting with the technology.Ford Motor Co. uses about 100 exoskeletons across 16 plants in eight countries, and is conducting a two-year study of their utility with Virginia Tech. BMW has 66 upper-body frames in use at its Spartanburg, S.C., plant, and is assembling a portfolio of several models for workers to choose from. Boeing started using 10 exoskeletons in October 2017, and plans to ramp up to a couple hundred by mid-year.
“Exoskeletons are coming,” said Frank Pochiro, a senior manufacturing engineer at BMW who is overseeing the exoskeleton rollout. “There’s going to be much more widespread use in all auto manufacturing, but also in light manufacturing, construction, any industry you can think of where you’re bringing your arms up over your head.”
Exoskeletons in industrial use today are “passive,” meaning they do not use external power. There are upper-body, lower-body and full-body models. Most range in price from about $4,000 to $6,000, weigh about 5 to 10 pounds and require a one-time adjustment to a user’s frame. “It’s not designed to give you superhuman strength; it’s designed to give you superhuman endurance,” said Zach Haas, a senior product manager at Richmond, Calif.-based Ekso Bionics ,which began selling its EksoVest upper-body model in January 2018.
Ottobock, a German medical-technology company, debuted an upper-body exoskeleton in September, and has gotten interest from unexpected places, said Soenke Roessing, head of industrials. Servers at last year’s Oktoberfest in Munich donned Ottobock exoskeletons to carry trays of beer steins.
Ottobock and Ekso Bionics, like other exoskeleton makers, got their start in the field of wearable medical devices. Much of the early market was fueled by medical applications and defense contracts, said Bruce Floersheim of the Wearable Robotics Association trade group. In the early 2000s, the U.S. military started researching powered exoskeletons but found that the necessary batteries were too heavy for the battlefield, Floersheim said. Roughly a decade later, exoskeleton makers found that passive models could benefit workers—and that a potentially massive and lucrative market existed in industrial settings. Today, the exoskeleton market is worth about $1 billion, a small slice of the $27 billion market for wearable technology, according to Floersheim.
An “Iron Man”-style powered suit has yet to appear on factory floors, thanks to the weight of the batteries involved. That may change in the next year or two. In November, Sarcos Robotics said it had assembled its first full-body, battery-powered exoskeleton called the Guardian XO Max. The suit, which responds to the movement of a human operator, would allow the wearer to lift up to 200 pounds by transferring weight to the floor. The key, according to Chief Executive and Chairman Ben Wolff, was to reduce the power needed to under 400 watts. Sarcos plans to start shipping the Guardian XO Max in early 2020. Customers, including auto makers, ship builders, warehouses and construction companies, would pay a monthly fee for the suit, maintenance and repairs.
Factory workers who’ve tried exoskeletons report less back and shoulder pain, and go home at night more active and relaxed, according to exoskeleton manufacturers and employers. Toyota’s Vanderbaan has tried his weld-inspection work without an exoskeleton. “My arm was pretty dead,” he said. “You can really feel it in your shoulder.”
Ultimately, the hope is that the devices will reduce work-related musculoskeletal disorders, which cost employers between $45 billion and $54 billion annually, according to a 2001 report from the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine. “Our clients, being big, sophisticated manufacturers are very, very well-attuned to their worker compensation costs,” said Levitate co-founder Joseph Zawaideh. “They are, in many cases, looking for a solution. We don’t have to do all that much convincing.”
It’s still too early to establish a link between exoskeleton use and a reduction in injuries. Small-scale studies commissioned by exoskeleton makers and their customers have shown that use of the devices reduces oxygen use and muscle activity—proxies for worker fatigue. A lab-based study conducted by researchers at Virginia Tech—which looked at 12 people performing simulated repetitive tasks including drilling and connecting wires—found that Ekso Bionics’ EksoVest reduced median shoulder activity by 60.3%.
Injury reduction is becoming more urgent as healthcare costs rise and the workforce ages. Fewer younger workers are entering trades like construction, making it all the more important to keep older, experienced people on the job. Where tasks are still too expensive or difficult for robots, a worker in an exoskeleton could offer the best of both human and machine.
Companies are grappling with how to introduce exoskeletons at scale, including how to maintain, store and clean them. Exoskeleton makers have made their designs lighter and easier for “donning and doffing,” recognizing that an extra minute spent putting on the suit could hinder adoption. Whether workers will strap on another piece of equipment on a hot July day is an open question, said Marty Smets, who is overseeing Ford’s program. But exoskeleton makers are continually tweaking designs and introducing new models. “When the next devices come out,” Smets said, “this conversation may totally change.”
By Leigh Kamping-Carder
Jan. 17, 2019