Your Brains, Mechanical Brawn

Many Americans can relate to post-work exhaustion. This is even true for those spending their day in front of a work terminal laboring over an Excel spreadsheet, or rehearsing talking points for a presentation in front of the board. This is doubly so for those in labor-intensive jobs. Workers in these types of positions face countless physical risks throughout the day. Common soft tissue injuries such as strains and sprains can be devastating to both a workers’ lifestyle and to a district’s workers’ compensation costs. Treatments could be long, arduous, and expensive.

Thankfully, technology has been catching up to some of the common, but hazardous tasks in the workplace. In the past, we’ve talked about the advent of self-driving automobiles and how they have already led to improvements in driving safety. We have also reviewed life-saving devices such as air monitors for confined-space work, and wrote about trending technologies like wearable smart devices that can reduce or spot health risks. But what does technology have in store for workers when it comes to common activities like lifting or repetitive motion tasks?

For the past several years, numerous companies have been developing and manufacturing exoskeletons, which are wearable robotics designed to enhance human strength and endurance with hydraulics or motors. The United States military has been testing the technology’s capacity for load bearing, which would assist soldiers in carrying heavy armaments and supplies across long distances.

The health industry has taken an interest in applying the technology for physical rehabilitation and disability assistance. Also, several employers have already begun testing these devices with their manual laborers as a way of curbing fatigue and sprain and strain injuries.

There is no denying the far-reaching applications of the “power suit,” some of which are commercially available like SuitX’s Phoenix Exoskeleton, a medical exoskeleton specifically designed to be affordable and lightweight. Similarly, Hyundai has also announced its intention to release affordable and “fashionable” exoskeletons, H-Mex and H-Wex for industrial lifting and assisted walking for the disabled respectively.

Panasonic is presently at work on versions of the iconic exoskeleton power frame from the film series Aliens. This sounds like science fiction, but these products are here now, they aren’t astronomically expensive, and they represent a real chance to lower injury rates.

In 2015, a field-test design team conducted a study to investigate whether exoskeletons, in this case the personal ergonomic device (PED), can “[increase] productivity and quality of dynamitic (electrostatic painting) and static (MIG welding) tasks because operator fatigue and associated soreness are [ergonomically] reduced.” The reason behind the study was informed by the following findings from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2014, “the U.S. is seeing an increase of older workers in the active job market. People are not retiring in their 50s as they did 20 years ago; from 2000 to 2012, the number of people [ages] 45 and older in the workforce swelled from 34% to 44%.”

Additionally, the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety reported that, “overexertion ranked first among the leading causes of disabling injury. Lifting, pushing, pulling, holding, or carrying objects cost businesses $15.08 billion in direct costs and accounted for nearly a quarter of the overall national burden.”

Participants were asked to perform a set of repetitive painting and welding tasks while wearing the PED to the point of fatigue, or where they were no longer able to fulfill their commissions at an acceptable level of performance. They also duplicated these tasks without the PED in order to provide a comparative point. The tasks ranged from moderate to severe in terms of ergonomic strain, and state-of-the-art welding and painting simulators were used to quantify the following results:

“One painter’s productivity improved by 27.69% and the other by 53.13% […] the welder performance without, then with an exoskeleton device showed that productivity improved by 86%. Both welders’ and painters’ quantitative computer data showed quality was maintained at a higher level for the duration of the […] tests while wearing an exoskeleton device.”

There was an additional, unanticipated result from the field test. Researchers discovered that the exoskeleton device also helped relieve existing shoulder strain. It seems that researchers have only begun to scratch the surface of what this technology can afford the working public. Global brands like BMW have also started testing exoskeletons with injury prevention and workforce retention in mind.

Some exoskeleton products are designed to address different muscle groups and parts of the body. For example, the Modular Agile eXoskeleton is comprised of three parts for different joints and muscles, and can be worn as a complete set or in its individual components depending on need. Perhaps, one of the most attractive aspects of this form of robotics is that, unlike other recent technological advancements, most are designed to assist, expand, augment, and preserve the workforce instead of replacing it with robots.

However, given the relative newness of the technology, problems remain. The exoskeleton industry still lacks standardized vocabulary and communication, which impedes their ability to adequately convey their value to consumers and businesses. Exoskeletons have been called power suits, power frames, and exosuits, and while these terms seem interchangeable in their usage, they may actually denote very different things.

Without unified language, the industry runs the risk of confusing what the technology is currently capable of to interested consumers, and some manufacturers have been accused of selling promises they can’t deliver.

One such case involves medical exoskeleton manufacturer Ekso Bionics, who came under heavy scrutiny for not disclosing the technical and financial limitations of their company and its products. This was further compounded by their unrealistic advertisements. For people who don’t work within the industry, watching a video in which a wheelchair-bound patient walks again with the assistance of an exoskeleton may feel like witnessing a modern miracle. That kind of misconception could give consumers and businesses an inappropriately high expectation of what these machines are currently capable of accomplishing.

Additionally, there is no standardized testing and reporting for exoskeleton products, which limits stakeholders from making informed business decisions. Without industry or government instituted benchmarks, the products cannot accurately be compared with one another the same way that washing machines, automobiles, computers, and other products are weighed.

While the promise of exoskeletons is exciting and even revolutionary, there is still a long way to go before we see its widespread use in the workplace. In addition to establishing consistent communication and a definitive evaluation process, manufacturers will have to address the public’s concerns and manage their expectations. Are there any inherent risks involved? How do users maintain and care for their exoskeletons? Only time will tell.

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