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Can Wearable Robotics Shrink the Worker Shortage?

Ilene Wolff
By Ilene Wolff Contributing Editor, SME Media

With a shortage of young workers willing and able to do today’s factory jobs, manufacturers are taking steps to retain the older workforce already punching in. Among those steps is providing wearable robotics—also called “exoskeletons”—that help the body with overhead tasks or lifting from a squat, said Tom Sugar, professor of engineering at Arizona State University, founder of SpringActive, and director of science and technology for the Wearable Robotics Association.

“People used to think the military is the big market, but now industrial exoskeletons can make some promising inroads by helping people do their work,” Sugar said. “These devices typically give you 20-30% of the lifting power you need, and they’re supposed to reduce fatigue.”

What exactly is a wearable robot or exoskeleton? “One way to classify these devices is how they’re used [e.g., industrial, military, medical, rehabilitation] and another way would be passive [spring-powered], quasi-active [with minimal motor assist] and then there’s the full-blown exoskeletons that are powered,” Sugar said.

Heavy manufacturers, including Comau, Ford and GM, are using wearable robotic devices to aid workers with tasks that include tightening bolts and working overhead. Sugar said he’s seen them in use at Toyota and BMW as well.

Comau and Ford’s devices are meant to relieve some physical stress on the upper body. In August, Ford made its EksoVest available in its factories around the world after piloting it at two plants. It provides lift assistance from 5-15 lb (2.27-6.8 kg) per arm. With use of Comau’s MATE, activation of some of the muscles in the wearer’s scapular-shoulder area is reduced by half, according to the company.

GM’s RoboGlove enhances hand strength and grip through sensors, actuators and tendons that are comparable to the nerves, muscles and tendons in a human hand.

When using Comau’s MATE, activation of some of the muscles in the wearer’s scapular-shoulder area is said to be reduced by half. (Provided by Comau)

Such devices can reduce risk of injury, promote workers’ long-term health and help lengthen their careers. That’s important because from 2018-2028, according to a Manufacturing Institute report, 4.6 million manufacturing jobs will need to be filled and only 2.2 million are likely to be.

Mitigating injury in manufacturing workplaces (especially for older workers) can save money and contribute to quality of life for the workforce. Overexertion from tasks costs businesses $13.67 billion in direct costs and accounts for 23.4% of the overall national burden, according to the 2018 Liberty Mutual Workplace Injury Index.

While the goal of extending an employee’s work life is laudable, questions remain about use of the exoskeletons, wrote Brian Lowe and colleagues in a NIOSH blog: Do some devices transfer the load between musculoskeletal regions (e.g., from arms and shoulders to spine and legs) that still puts the worker at risk? Do they affect balance? Do they create a false sense of security for handling heavy loads?

Some of these questions may be answered once guidelines are formulated by the ASTM Committee F48, of which Spring is a member, along with representatives from industry, academia and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. ISO is working on standards, too, Sugar said.

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