The Exoskeletons Are Coming: Part I
Although wearable robotic devices – exoskeletons – are relatively new, their use continues to multiply as companies introduce niche applications for specific parts of the body or purposes. We spoke with three industry experts about ways that exoskeletons are being used and piloted in manufacturing and industrial applications today. In this first part of a two-part article, we overview the four main categories of exoskeletons, use cases and pilots at Toyota, and wearable fabric-like robots.
According to Thomas Sugar, Ph.D., director of science & technology at Wearable Robotics Association, there are four main categories of exoskeleton use today:
- Medical: To provide mobility and rehabilitation support to patients after a spinal cord injury or stroke.
- Industry/manufacturing and logistics: To provide shoulder and lower back support for repetitive and weight bearing tasks.
- Military: To improve soldiers’ strength and endurance as well as provide support for lifting and moving heavy cargo loads.
- Consumer: To provide knee or ankle support for activities such as skiing or running.
Repetitive manual work
Exoskeletons are being piloted and used in manufacturing — especially in the automotive sector — to assist workers engaged in repetitive movements as well as lifting, moving, holding, and working on heavy objects. By providing support, they reduce muscle fatigue and worker injury as well as increase physical endurance.
Weighing on average between five and 10 pounds, and costing between $1,500-7,000, exoskeletons are typically designed either for the upper limbs for assisting shoulder flexion-extension movement or to provide lumbar support for assisting manual lifting tasks. BMW, GE, Caterpillar, Boeing, Delta Air Lines, Ford, Audi, Harley Davidson, Hyundai, Volkswagen, Nissan, and Toyota are among the companies piloting or using them today.
Toyota piloting many exoskeletons
Although exoskeletons can be either powered or passive, almost all uses today are passive, operating through springs and damper mechanisms. “We’ve been using passive shoulder exoskeletons in U.S. plants since 2019, and continue to pilot different models as well,” says Marisol Barrero (TEMA), safety innovations manager at Toyota Motor North America.
“Exoskeletons benefit our workers on production lines who are doing repetitive work such as raising and lowering their arms as they work on the chassis of vehicles. Although we follow the hierarchy of safety controls to reduce risk to our workers, we occasionally run out of good engineering options, which is when exoskeletons come in. We think of them as safety personal protection equipment that protects workers from fatigue in the shoulders, arms, and wrists.”
At this time, the use of powered exoskeletons is rare because the requirement for power — the battery — adds additional weight, heat, and complexity, making them significantly less comfortable. However, as batteries get smaller and technology improves, these will become more accepted, as they may be able to smartly adapt to the user, providing support only when needed by automatically sensing the user’s needs and capabilities.
“The feedback that I’ve received from team members across several plants is that these devices have really benefitted them, and not only at work, but after work they felt less fatigue and were able to do things that would previously have been more physically taxing, whether it's coaching a softball league or cooking dinner,” says Barrero.
Toyota continues to conduct a variety of pilots of different types of equipment. Current and upcoming pilots include using back exoskeletons in several parts distribution centers and a (second) trial of a hand exoskeleton that assists in the gripping of power tools. In addition to exoskeletons, Toyota has also trialed wearable sensors that analyze how someone’s body is moving around in space and can recognize when someone is engaging in at-risk postures, buzzing the person when this happens, and providing a stream of data that can be used for risk injury analysis.
Soft wearable robots
The Harvard Biodesign Lab currently working on developing a line of soft wearable robots, aka exosuits, that are made from textiles that conform to the shape of the human body in a comfortable and unobtrusive way. These exosuits are designed to boost both the capabilities of healthy individuals who seek improved walking efficiency as well as to provide assistance to those with muscle weakness or patients who suffer from physical or neurological disorders.
In part two of this two-part article, we overview exoskeletons for back support and hand gripping, and highlight the iron man of all robotic exoskeletons on the market today.
About the Author
Tim Shinbara is Vice President and Chief Technology Officer for AMT - The Association For Manufacturing Technology. He is responsible for strategic technology integration, international standards, and global collaborations regarding advancing the state of manufacturing technology. Mr. Shinbara focuses on activities related to research and development, industry adoption, and technology gap analyses. Mr. Shinbara is a Board Officer of the MTConnect Institute and has served on several committees and councils advising the public sector's manufacturing strategies, organization, and investment. He has over 19 years of combined IT/OT, manufacturing R&D, and tech start-up experience.