A growing number of factories, warehouses, and construction sites are integrating unpowered exoskeleton devices into their operations. Workers and companies using these devices are expected to benefit from increased safety and productivity.
Exoskeletons are wearable devices that work in tandem with the user/wearer. Exoskeletons are placed on the user’s body and act as “amplifiers” that augment, reinforce or restore human performance. The materials used in exoskeletons vary from rigid materials such as metal or carbon fiber to soft and elastic parts.
Exoskeletons are used in part to prevent the onset of musculoskeletal disorders in workers. These various disorders now cost companies between $45 and $54 billion in compensation costs annually. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the overall loss in productivity from injury-related absenteeism is $225.8 billion in the U.S. annually – or $1,685 per employee.
The Wall Street Journal reported that factory workers utilizing exoskeletons experience less back and shoulder pain in their work. This enables them to be more physically active during and after work hours.
Companies that are engineering and marketing exoskeletons are largely composed of start-up enterprises. Levitate Technologies, which is based in San Diego, has released the Airframe, a wearable, lightweight, upper body device meant to lower worker exertion levels by 80 percent. Its exoskeleton works by transferring the weight of the user’s arms from the shoulders, neck, and upper body to the body’s core, thereby evenly distributing energy to reduce physical stresses.
According to Levitate’s description, the Airframe exoskeleton uses a mechanical support system that progressively activates as the user’s arm is raised, and gradually releases as the arm is lowered. The mechanical support system functions through a network of cables, pulleys and springs to transfer body weight.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Toyota’s (TM: NYSE) manufacturing plant in Woodstock, Ontario outfitted 24 welders with Airframe exoskeletons in November 2018. Two hundred workers at Toyota’s plant in Princeton, Indiana will be using the device by March of this year.
According to Pitchbook, Levitate raised $8.5 million of venture capital financing in August 2017. NBC reported that 40 research and development groups are now invested in similar exoskeleton projects and that the wearable robotics industry could be worth $2 billion globally by 2025.
Vox Media visited Ford’s (F: NYSE) final assembly plant in Wayne, Michigan to follow the procurement of similar exoskeleton technology. Marty Smets, a technical expert with Ford, showcased a wearable device supplied by Ekso Bionics. He stated the device costs around $6,500 per unit and is in trial at Ford’s manufacturing facility in an effort to reduce worker fatigue.
Boeing (BA: NYSE) began exoskeleton trials in its factories in Missouri, South Carolina and Washington in 2017. The company’s aircraft manufacturing technicians expressed optimism about the devices’ potential to improve worker safety and ability. Boeing hopes to further incorporate exoskeleton technology into standardized worker tools.
Other companies experimenting with exoskeleton technology for their workforces include BMW (BMWYY: OTC US), Honda (HMC: NYSE), Lowe’s (LOW: NYSE), Panasonic (PCRFY: OTC US) and Siemens (SIEGY: OTC US).
The Conference Board, a non-profit research group, reported that the explosive growth of the e-commerce market in 2019 will outpace the supply of blue-collar workers. FreightWaves SONAR indicates that warehouse employment is at an all-time high. Therefore, some warehouse operators may introduce exoskeleton technology to increase worker productivity to help compensate for a tighter labor market.
While current workplace exoskeletons are unpowered, future variants are likely to be powered to assist workers in tasks that require enhanced strength and speed. Improvements in lightweight, long-lasting battery technology will make this possible. Other exoskeletons may become interwoven into clothing.
Some exoskeleton manufacturers are also developing these platforms for medical purposes and the military, potentially driving even more interest in exoskeleton technology.