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For older workers, wearables are where it's at

Ilene Wolff
By Ilene Wolff Contributing Editor, SME Media

Boeing, BMW, Comau, Ford, General Motors, Hyundai and Toyota are all in the know

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Comau’s MATE, an acronym for Muscular Aiding Tech Exoskeleton, transfers about 30 percent of the muscular burden from the shoulders to the pelvis.

When the ergonomics team at General Motors decided to field test wearables to augment their plant workers’ physical abilities, they partnered with body mechanics experts who collect data in a scientific way—and talked with users.

“One operator said, ‘I usually have to take a Motrin at lunch to make it through my shift, and today I didn’t have to’,” said GM’s Dan Flores. “It’s that kind of feedback we received during our initial pilot that gave us the encouragement to proceed.”

Like GM, other manufacturers are enhancing their employees’ abilities through wearable devices, some of which take the strain off their muscles, or monitor potentially harmful physical moves and alert the worker to stop—or track their location and environmental conditions in a sprawling job site.

All of these devices help increase worker safety and, in the case of exoskeletons or GM’s powered, grip-assist glove, are aiding in retaining older workers while employers figure out how to fill the vacancies once these more experienced employees retire.

“Industrial exoskeletons are really taking off,” said Dr. Tom Sugar, director of science and technology for the Wearable Robotics Association and professor of engineering at Arizona State University. “That’s a really big marketplace in terms of worker wellness.”

Industry sees wearables as a way to get more years out of an older, skilled and experienced workforce already punching in in the face of the shortage of younger workers willing and able to do today’s factory jobs. That’s important because from 2015-2025, the skills gap is projected to result in 2 million job vacancies, according to a Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte report.

Mitigating injuries in manufacturing workplaces, where older workers’ timeworn bodies are especially prone, can save money, contribute to quality of life for the workforce and keep factories humming.

For workers, overexertion while lifting, pushing, turning, holding, carrying, throwing and making repetitive motions is the top workplace injury resulting in lost workdays, at 33.5 percent, and manufacturing is the No. 3 industry for injuries that keep workers away from their jobs, according to the National Safety Council.

Developers of these devices in manufacturing are being strategic and methodical in their approach. They’re partnering with the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America union and with experts in body mechanics, doing studies on the factory floor and in the lab, and trying different devices in their efforts to mitigate risk.

GM’s Orion Assembly Plant, where the Chevy Sonic and two models of the Chevy Bolt are made, is the company’s central testing site, but pilots are going on at all assembly plants in the United States and Canada with passive exoskeletons and the grip-assist glove.

GM is in the first wave of wearables, along with BMW, Boeing, Comau, Ford, Hyundai and Toyota, among others.

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Ford Motor’s EksoVest, an exoskeleton, takes the strain off the shoulder muscles of an operator working overhead.

In what may have been a watershed moment for the use of wearable robotics in manufacturing, in 2018 Toyota designated an upper body exoskeleton as personal protection equipment for welders at its Woodstock, Ont., plant. This means wearing the exoskeleton is required for these workers, similar to the way goggles, closed-toed shoes and ear plugs must be worn.

Helping vulnerable shoulders

In the early 2010s, Ford was experimenting with various technologies to augment its workers’ shoulder muscles. Wanting to decrease the number of shoulder injuries, the amount of money spent on relieving them and increasing quality of life for employees, Ford decided to focus on technology that aided overhead work done while a vehicle-in-progress is on a hoist. Working overhead with a tool such as a right-angle nut runner that can weigh up to 13 pounds calls on the shoulders and arms to work extremely hard for a sustained period. It’s the kind of task that’s highly correlated with risk of injury.

Ford trialed various shoulder wearables, but its focus is on the EksoVest from Ekso Bionics, a California-based robotics company. Ford started a longitudinal study on the EksoVest in all of its plants in North America with Virginia Tech in 2017.

During an 18-month trial in the plants, workers documented details about their use of the adjustable EksoVest, which can provide 5-15 pounds of lift assistance per arm. Some tweaks were made to prototypes, such as adding ventilation and cooling because the vests were too hot to wear in plants with no air conditioning. Then teams of Ford engineers fanned out to the factories to do surveys and gather subjective feedback. Finally, in November last year, experts in biomechanics and mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech started doing the kind of lab tests that can’t be done on a plant floor.

Results of a small field trial are in, though, and they look encouraging.

“Participants reported a substantial decrease (the author’s italics) in work-related discomfort after three months of regular arm-support exoskeletons use, with the shoulders, arms, and neck indicated as the areas of greatest improvement,” Marty Smets, technical expert in human systems and virtual manufacturing at Ford’s Advanced Manufacturing Center, wrote in results published in March last year.

Full results from 80 control subjects and 40 participants who use the EksoVest are expected this year.

Ford isn’t alone in its development of a passive exoskeleton to augment the shoulders.

Comau, the industrial automation firm owned by FCA, is selling directly and through distributors a passive exoskeleton that supplements the shoulder area.

The Reflex, from Kinetic, is equipped with a 3D motion sensor that alerts the wearer with a mild buzzing sensation if he’s bending, twisting, turning or overextending in a way that could harm his back.

“For us, automation doesn’t always equal robots,” said Mark Anderson, head of robotics and automation products at Comau North America.

Comau’s MATE, an acronym for Muscular Aiding Tech Exoskeleton, transfers about 30 percent of the muscular burden from the shoulders to the pelvis, and it adjusts to offer seven levels of assistance. “Hundreds” of the 9-pound devices are in use in Europe and the Asia Pacific region, including at FCA plants, Anderson said. MATE became available to the U.S. market last year.

Giving workers a hand

GM’s technology Ironhand, initially called the RoboGlove, is different from the EksoVest and MATE in that it’s powered by a battery and meant to assist a wearer’s grip and not his shoulder muscles.

The powered glove enhances a wearer’s hand strength and grip through sensors and actuators that are comparable to the nerves, muscles and tendons in a human hand. The glove and its battery, which is worn in a backpack, weigh 5.5 pounds.

The device lets the wearer repeat or maintain his grip without using as much force by exerting up to 10 pounds of grip force. The extra power helps during the repetitive motions of operating a rivet gun or a drill driver. Or Ironhand can assist with sustained holding, such as gripping a bundle of wires while assembling a vehicle.

The IoT-connected Ironhand was developed in conjunction with Bioservo Technologies, a Swedish soft bionics company.

Bioservo CEO Petter Backgren said the Internet of Things connection allows the company to digitally assess the working environment to identify critical tasks where ergonomic risk is high.

This allows for countermeasures that can reduce risk and prevent injury.

“Ironhand collects data on usage, such as the number of grasps, grasp frequency, grasp cycle and forces,” he said. “The data is used in combination with two scientific risk assessment methods to provide employees and industry with calculations of their operators’ risk of developing strain injuries as well as the potential risk reduction Ironhand can contribute.”

Protecting vulnerable backs

One of the more injury-prone parts of the body in any industry is the spine.

To protect the back, Kinetic makes the Reflex, a device equipped with a 3D motion sensor that clips onto a waistband and alerts the wearer with a mild buzzing sensation if he’s bending, twisting, turning or overextending in a way that could harm his spine. The Reflex’s algorithm was developed using ergonomics data from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), said Aditya Bansal, the company’s chief technology officer.

In addition to providing immediate feedback to the wearer, Reflex pushes data from an individual and in the aggregate to a cloud-based database that analyzes the information to tell which jobs, for example, are prone to dangerous movements or which time of day workers are more prone to move in ways that counter good back health.

Based on data from 21,000 users, Kinetic asserts that Reflex has in factories where it has been used led to a 5 percent increase in productivity, a 54 percent reduction in workers compensation claims costs and an 88 percent reduction in lost workdays.

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General Motors’ Ironhand helps during the repetitive motions of operating a rivet gun or can assist with sustained holding, such as gripping a bundle of wires while assembling a vehicle.

Where is my worker? Is he O.K.?

Guardhat CEO Saikat Dey was prompted to form a startup to manufacture its IoT-connected, Made-in-America hardhats after leaving his leadership position at a steelmaking plant. While serving as Severstal North America’s CEO, he searched unsuccessfully for a similar worker-safety technology. Finding none, he decided to make his own.

There are two versions of the hat, differentiated by the addition of a camera in one model. Both monitor battery life, temperature, noise, humidity and pressure. Both can detect falls and enable two-way communication. Guardhat also has the Atlas personal tag to perform similar functions.

“Guardhat helps to answer three questions,” Dey said. “Where is my worker? Can I understand the environment and conditions he’s in? And can I communicate with him?”

The company’s software platform, Kyra, and its human-machine interface support the Guardhats, Atlas and other, third-party wearables that are capable of an IoT connection.

That means the human grip-augmenting device Ironhand, developed in part by General Motors, could be connected to Kyra.

“As long as it has wireless connectivity, we’ll read it and warn the worker” when there’s a problem, Dey said.

Since not all facilities are 100 percent connected, the intelligent Guardhat devices can operate offline, making decisions locally and feeding their data into Kyra once they’re back on the platform.

Unanswered questions

While the goals of extending an employee’s work life and making him more comfortable in his job are laudable, questions remain about use of the exoskeletons, Brian Lowe and colleagues wrote 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? How are workplace practices modified regarding weight-lifting limits and handling?

Some of these questions may be answered with the kind of testing Ford and Virginia Tech are doing along with guidelines from the standards organization ASTM International. So far, ASTM’s Committee F48, of which the Wearable Robotics Association’s Sugar is a member along with representatives from industry, academia and the NIOSH, has set guidelines that define what an exoskeleton is and how it should be labeled. Proposed are guidelines for maintaining the exoskeletons, safety considerations, ergonomics and more.

In October last year, ASTM chose the winners of a worldwide competition to lead its Exo Center of Excellence. The center will do standards-based research with funding from ASTM, industry, government and other stakeholders to help accelerate innovation in the wearables industry.

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