Exoskeletons, or wearable robotic devices, are increasingly being tested and used by large manufacturers to reduce worker injury, reduce errors due to muscle fatigue, increase endurance, and increase productivity. By combining the strength, endurance, and precision of machines with the intelligence, dexterity, and decision-making capabilities of humans, exoskeletons assist users in lifting, moving, and holding heavy objects.
BMW, GE, Caterpillar, Boeing, Delta Air Lines, Ford, Audi, Volkswagen, Nissan, and Toyota are among the companies using them today, and as prices come down – they currently cost $4,000 to $6,000 – they will likely become common on factory floors, construction sites, and in light manufacturing.
Weighing about 5 to 10 pounds, and typically requiring only a single adjustment to a user’s frame, exoskeletons have several possible designed uses: for the upper limbs, assisting shoulder flexion-extension movements; for lumbar support, assisting manual lifting tasks; or, in some cases, supporting the full body in movement. Furthermore, they can be either powered or passive. When powered, they operate by a system of electric motors, pneumatics, levers, hydraulics, or a combination of technologies that sense the user's motion and send a signal to motors that manage the gears. Unpowered, or passive, exoskeletons do not use any electrical power source and instead operate through the use of springs and locking mechanisms.
BMW’s Spartanburg, S.C. assembly plant was the first automotive plant in the world to use the exoskeleton vest, and it is now assembling a portfolio of several models for workers to choose from based on their movements. The Spartanburg plant is one of a handful of global BMW assembly plants where new ideas are tested. BMW has estimated that the vests can reduce effort required by 30-40% and plans to experiment with using the vests for other tasks, including some done alongside vehicles instead of underneath.
Toyota is using exoskeletons in its Woodstock, Ontario and Princeton, Ind. plants. In the latter, 150+ of the plant’s 7,000+ workers are required to use the devices. Ford uses about 100 exoskeletons across 16 plants in eight countries and is conducting a two-year study of their utility with Virginia Tech.
It is estimated that the exoskeleton market today is about $1 billion. Levitate Technologies and Ekso Bionics are the leading manufacturers of exoskeletons in the United States; Noonee, a Swiss company, is a leading European manufacturer.