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Turning workers into ‘super workers’ with robotic suits

If you have watched the Iron Man film franchise, you will know that a powered suit gives inventor Tony Stark superhuman strength to fight the bad guys. But away from the fictional world of blockbusting movies, robotic exoskeletons offer more prosaic and useful help for humans.

The military has been in on the act for years, using them to help soldiers carry more weight for longer periods of time. Meanwhile, manufacturers have been busy creating robotic suits to give mobility to people with disabilities.

But now exoskeletons are becoming a key part of the scene in more conventional workplaces, mainly because of their unique offering. “Exoskeletons act as a bridge between fully-manual labour and robotic systems.

You get the brains of people in the body of a robot,” says Dan Kara, research director at ABI Research. “But there’s more to it than that. You can tie the use of exoskeletons to business benefits that are very easy to quantify.

The main one is a reduction in work-related injuries, and we know that outside the common cold, back injury is the main reason people are off work.” The motor industry has used robots for many years. But robots can’t do everything, points out technical expert Marty Smets, of Ford’s human systems and virtual manufacturing unit.

“In our plants, we see a need for both people and robots,” he says. Some Ford assembly line workers lift their arms up to 4,600 times a day – that’s about a million times a year.

That sort of repetition leaves many suffering from back-ache and neck pain. Now, though, the firm has equipped staff at two US assembly plants with a device called the EksoVest, from California-based Ekso Bionics.

It helps take the strain by giving workers an extra 5-15lb (2.2-6.8kg) of lift per arm. “Incredible is the only word to describe the vest,” said Paul Collins, an assembly line worker at Ford Michigan assembly plant.

“It has made my job significantly easier and has given me more energy throughout the day.” The company says it is already seeing a dramatic decline in work-related injuries and is now planning to introduce the exoskeletons at facilities in Europe and South America.

Currently, the industrial use of exoskeletons is relatively small – this year only a few thousand have been sold, says ABI’s Kara. But, he says, the potential market could be in the millions.

The types of exoskeleton used for rehabilitation can cost more than $100,000 (Sh needing, as they usually do, to replace a user’s muscles altogether. However, industrial versions can be far cheaper, at around $5,000.

They generally augment human strength rather than replace it and tend to enhance one part of the body only. They also often don’t need any external power. Instead, they can deliver a 10 to 20 per cent boost to the user’s lifting power by transferring weight to the ground. -BBC

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