Industrial exoskeletons: new systems, improved technologies, increasing adoption

industrial exoskeletons

Hyundai’s Chairless Exoskeleton (H-CEX). (Credit: Hyundai)

The exoskeleton sector continues to evolve, and in some sense has begun
 to normalize. The medical, business and technical press has long reported on exoskeleton technologies designed for medical rehabilitation and as mobility aids, even though commercial success and large-scale adoption has not yet been realized. Recently, however, reportage, along with focus of a number of medical exoskeleton suppliers, has shifted to a new exo market – industrial exoskeletons.

Author’s Note: For this article, the meaning of the word term “industrial” has been expanded
 to include both the industrial sector and the commercial services sector. Companies in the industrial sector derive their revenue by providing tangible goods, material, and products (i.e. manufacturing, construction, agriculture, mining etc.). The commercial services sector is made up of companies that primarily derive revenue by providing intangible products and services (i.e. logistics, transportation, retail, healthcare, energy etc.).

The reason for this swing is straightforward. Exoskeletons designed for supporting manual labor tasks in industrial environments are now commercially available and proving themselves in the field. Sizable companies are trialing systems, research is ongoing, and new enabling technologies specifically designed for the exo market have been recently introduced. Standards and regulatory issues related to the use of exo in industrial settings, while significant, are not nearly as expansive and complex as that of their medical counterparts, and acquisition is
not dependent on insurance dollars or soft money sources such as grants. More importantly, the value proposition for the use of exos for industrial work is straightforward and ROI easily calculated.

Wearable robots

“Industrial exoskeletons” is the collective name given to mechanical devices worn by workers, whose construction mirrors the structure of operator’s limbs, joints, and muscles, works in tandem with them, and is utilized as a capabilities amplifier, or as a fatigue and strain reducer. Body weight support, lift assistance, load maintenance, positioning correction and body stabilization are common capabilities of industrial exoskeletons.

It is useful to think of industrial exoskeletons as wearable robots that exploit the intelligence of human operators, and the strength and endurance of industrial robots. Like traditional robots, they address tasks, especially repetitive tasks that cannot be automated using traditional methods, that are physically demanding. In this sense, exoskeleton technology can be seen as a bridging solution between the extremes of fully manual work and those tasks that demand typical industrial robots.

industrial exoskeletons

Sarcos Robotics’ Guardian XO. (Credit: Sarcos Robotics)

The wearable robotics market is still 
in its infancy, yet there already exists a number of companies offering compelling exo solutions. All of the products are worn by human operators, but the solutions themselves can differ considerably based on their intended use and supporting technologies. The diversity of currently available commercial exoskeleton solutions is also a reflection of the widely ranging backgrounds and core historical strengths of exoskeleton technologies suppliers. At the highest level, solutions can be distinguished according to their form factor, power requirements and construction material:

Arms, upper and lower body: Exo systems come in many forms, including systems that attach at the hip and have weight carried by the exo through to the floor such as Lockheed Martin’s FORTIS or Noonee’s Chairless Chair which lock in place and act as a seat when needed. Others, such as StrongArm Technologies’ FLx ErgoSkeleton, are upper body systems, while still others assist hands in gripping (Bioservo Technologies’ Ironhand, for example).

Powered and unpowered: Most of the commercial exoskeleton solutions make use of some form of battery to power actuation and assistance, although non-traditional power solutions such as compressed air are used by some. Examples of commercial class powered exoskeletons include ATOUN’s Power Assist ARM, Innophys’ Muscle Suit, Cyberdyne’s HAL for Labor Support, RB3D’s HERCULE, Sarcos Robotics’ Guardian XO and Noonee’s Chairless Chair.

In contrast to powered exoskeletons, unpowered or ‘passive’ exos increase strength and provide stability through a combination of human guided flexion/ extension and locking mechanisms. Unpowered exos for commercial and industrial use include Ottobock’s Paexo, Levitate Technologies’ AIRFRAME, suitX’s MAX Exoskeleton Suit, StrongArm Technologies’ FLx ErgoSkeleton, Laevo’s Laevo and Lockheed Martin’s Fortis.

Rigid and soft: Rigid exos can produce musculoskeletal stress and fatigue 
due to their weight, as well as the unnatural or constrained movement of the suit. As a result, a number of companies are developing new types of soft exoskeletons made of soft, lightweight, compliant materials. The systems themselves are powered with soft muscle actuators or compressed air, or use flexion/extension mechanisms. Bioservo Technologies’ Ironhand and Daiya Industry’s Power Assist Glove serve as examples. In a manner to first generation exoskeleton systems, groups developing soft exo systems for military, and even consumer applications, such as Harvard University and Seismic, respectively, are sure to target the industrial sector at some point.

industrial exoskeletons

Ford purchased 75 EksoVest exoskeletons from Ekso Bionics to reduce workforce injuries. (Credit: Ford)

Value proposition of industrial exoskeletons

The business benefits of commercial/industrial exoskeletons are intuitively obvious and some easily quantified. They include increased efficiency and improved productivity. In some instances, exoskeletons can be used in place of industrial robots, eliminating the need for expensive, “full on” automation solutions. Exoskeletons also have the potential of allowing aging workers to continue to perform labor intensive tasks.

Today, however, the primary advantage given for using exoskeletons for industrial work, and the key driver for adoption, is to decrease the number of worker related injuries, and by doing so reducing healthcare and disability costs. Improving worker health has the tangential effect of reducing employee turnover, among other benefits.

Adoption and testing

Technological advancement in exoskeleton enabling technologies, along with increasing familiarity on the part of businesses with the potential of exos, have resulted in the increased use of exoskeleton technologies in industrial settings. At this time, the manufacturing sector, particularly automotive manufacturing, along with other industries requiring labor intensive work such as the logistics, retail and construction fields, are the leading adopters of exoskeleton technologies. In some cases the exo systems are purchased outright, while many suppliers allow systems to be leased or made available as a service.

Adoption rates for exoskeletons can be difficult to quantify with a high degree of accuracy. As is common with other nascent technologies offering significant competitive advantage, reference customers are often unwilling to go public with their exoskeleton use cases. Recently, however, several large, international companies have come forward to openly describe their experiences with exoskeletons. Consider the following:

Hyundai: In October 2018, Hyundai Motor Group announced they would begin testing their Hyundai Vest Exoskeleton (H-VEX), exo technology that reduces pressure on workers’ neck and back, at a North American Hyundai-KIA factory. This follows the start of trials at the same plant beginning in August 2017 of the Hyundai Chairless Exoskeleton (H-CEX), a knee joint sustainability device that maintains the sitting position of workers. According to Hyundai, both the H-CEX and H-VEX systems are designed to reduce injuries and increase worker efficiency.

Ford: Following a pilot program begun in November 2017 with exoskeleton maker Ekso Bionics, Ford announced in August 2018 that the company would be introducing 75 of Ekso’s upper body exoskeletons across 15 automotive plants worldwide. Ford representatives have stated that use of the upper body exoskeletons, which assists employees performing overhead tasks, should reduce the number of repetitive motion injuries.

BMW: The BMW assembly plant in South Carolina is currently employing Levitate Technologies’ AIRFRAME unpowered, upper body exoskeleton. The systems are also being trialed at other BMW plants. Levitate representatives claim the AIRFRAME exo lowers exertion levels by up to 80% for tasks involving repetitive arm motion.

Lowe’s: In August 2017, Lowe’s Innovation Lab (LIL), the internal research branch of US$65 billion home improvement retailer Lowe’s, began trialing unpowered exoskeletons, ‘exosuits’ in Lowe’s parlance, at the company’s Christiansburg, VA store. The exosuits were developed conjointly by LIL and Virginia Tech’s Assistive Robotics Laboratory (ARL). The testing is being carried out by the Lowe’s stocking staff, who are using the exos for repeatedly lifting and moving heavy objects.

industrial exoskeletons

maxon motor’s Exoskeleton Drive. (Credit: maxon motor)

Enabling technologies

Advances in enabling technologies, especially for actuators, batteries and advanced materials, are reducing the costs and increasing the functionality of industrial exoskeletons, with speedier and wider adoption the result. Much of the innovation is driven by technologies targeted to the robotics sector, including those areas where med tech and robotics intersect such as robotic rehabilitation and quality of life systems.

Harmonic Drive’s lightweight, brushless FLA Rotary Acutators provides an example, as does the polymer bearings from igus which are used in unpowered exo from Levitate Technologies. The continuing need by the medical device and robotics markets for smaller, lighter and more capable enabling technologies is working in favor of those currently developing exoskeleton products.

Providers of technologies used in robotics systems and medical devices have also brought to market component technologies targeted specifially to exoskeleton developers, or have pushed marketing that emphasizes the suitability of items in their existing product lines for use in wearable robots. For example, maxon motor recently introduced a compact, low weight “Exoskeleton Drive” joint actuation unit that consists of a brushless DC motor with inertia optimized rotor and high resolution encoders.

Conclusion

Decades of exoskeleton research, advancements in enabling technologies, and increased investment, coupled with an intuitive, easily demonstrated value proposition, has resulted in a growing industrial exoskeleton sector. Pilot projects and trials have given way to day-to-day work. New products continue to enter the market.

Yet the industrial exoskeleton sector is still in its nascency, and the market opportunity is very large. For example, ABI Research finds that the current total addressable market (TAM) for industrial exoskeletons currently exceeds 2.6 million units. This figure dwarfs the number of systems that companies have brought to market, or will do so in the foreseeable future. The scope of the opportunity far exceeds even the most optimistic projections as to what suppliers can deliver.

The conclusion is obvious: the market potential for industrial exoskeletons is enormous, as are the rewards for entrepreneurial solution providers that can aggressively innovate and come to market with workable solutions delivering business value.

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