The Exoskeletons Are Coming: Part II
Although wearable robotic devices – aka exoskeletons – are relatively new, their use cases continue to multiply as companies introduce niche applications for specific parts of the body or purposes. We spoke with industry experts about ways that exoskeletons are being used in manufacturing and logistics today. In this second part of our two-part article, we overview exoskeletons for back support and hand gripping, as well as explore the iron man of all robotic exoskeletons on the market today.
Apex to the Rescue
Globally, lower back pain is the single leading cause of disability. Both the manufacturing and logistics sectors experience this problem. In both, employees bend, lift, reach, and lean repeatedly throughout the day. With back pain costing the U.S. healthcare system more than $100 billion a year in medical care, workers compensation payments, and time lost from work, it is not surprising that exoskeletons are being evaluated in these sectors.
One of the leading products in the market is HeroWear’s back-assist exosuit, Apex, which provides passive lower back support to reduce fatigue and sustain strength. It weighs only 3.4 lbs. and can reduce over 75 pounds of strain on the back. In addition to use in manufacturing and logistics operations, the suit is also being tested for uses in healthcare lifting, agricultural picking, and construction.
Hand gripping support
Toyota is trialing Bioservo’s Ironhand product for hand gripping at their Georgetown, Ky., weld shop, where employees work with a number of power tools. Ironhand is the first active soft exoskeleton for the hand, and it strengthens the human grip, allowing operators to use less grip force when performing repetitive tasks.
Ironhand consists of a glove that covers all five fingers and a power pack worn in a backpack or hip-carry. It is activated when the user starts moving their hand to perform a task, using sensors located on the palm and on the fingers. The Ironhand may become popular in sectors with manual assembly work, such as pressing in, clipping, or compressing. It may also become popular in manual work that involves tools or power tools that must be held static for a period of time, such as grinders, drilling machines, sanding machines, welding machines, hammers, and pop rivet guns.
The ironman robot
At the top of exoskeleton market – in terms of robust solutions – are products by Sarcos Robotics. Its full body powered exoskeleton suit, the Guardian XO, can lift up to 200 pounds! Unveiled at CES 2020 with Delta Air Lines, the Guardian XO, has been trialed by Delta’s employees for maintenance and repair operations including freight handling at cargo warehouses and lifting heavy machinery and parts for ground support equipment. Based on trial feedback from Delta and others, Sarcos expects to release the commercial version of the Guardian XO in the second half of 2022.
The Guardian XO is designed for use in industries where lifting and manipulation of heavy materials or awkward objects is required and isn’t easily handled by standard lift equipment. In aerospace, this includes working on airplane tires, brake assemblies, or engines.
In the automotive industry it could be used for tire assembly, working with batteries, and lifting items that are not a regular part of the assembly line and therefore do not have an automated process such as installing hitches.
Solving the lift gap
“Our products solve the lift gap between OSHA guidelines that cap lifting at 35 pounds and lifting up to 200 pounds,” says Kristi Martindale, chief product & marketing officer at Sarcos Robotics. “Anything over 200 pounds is probably being lifted or moved with a crane or a forklift. The Guardian XO is designed for unstructured environments where it is not cost effective to create a large infrastructure for lift assists or cranes, but employers still want to keep employees safe.”
While the Guardian XO is very heavy due to its motors, batteries, and electronics – the current version is about 300 pounds – it maintains its own weight, similar to how the human body works. The weight is distributed and goes through the suit to the ground, so the person wearing it feels like they’re wearing about a 10-pound backpack.
It is priced as a service model, so it is an operational cost for a company and the cost is the annual equivalent of a fully-burdened $25 an hour employee. Sarcos takes care of all of the software upgrades, regular maintenance, and repair.
This service model will be attractive to many companies.
Read Part 1 of this article to learn about additional ways that exoskeletons are being used in manufacturing applications 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.