These exoskeletons can help prevent worker injury

These exoskeletons can help prevent worker injury


Are bionic suits the future of how we work? Exoskeletons have been around both in concept and in practice for decades. Most people probably think of the bulky suits
that Tony Stark wears. But that doesn’t seem to be the future
of exoskeletons. The future is modular, lightweight, and maybe
even right in your workplace. This is Ford’s final assembly plant in
Wayne, Michigan. If you’ve never been to a car factory before, which I had not, it’s kind of what you might think it would be like: there are lots of
moving parts, a steady stream of car husks being transformed into something drivable,
and a lot of people hard at work — 3,500 of them in this specific plant. One of those workers stands out.
He’s one of four people at Ford who have been testing an exoskeleton vest. My name is Paul Collins. I go by Woody.
I’ve been at Ford motor company since January of ’95. What I do most of the day is
I work over my head. I install the carbon
can on the C-Max. I also put rubber grommets in on the Focus, on the ST, and on the BEV units. And pretty much, that’s what I do most of the day long. Almost 70 cars an hour. So how many times a day are you lifting your arms? Oh, I that I couldn’t tell you. I don’t know. I lift my arms probably seven or eight times
on each vehicle. So times that by 615 — it’s a lot. Enter the vest. Since May, Paul has been wearing an exoskeleton adjusted to his height and arm length. So when you’re lifting your arms now,
where are you getting the assistance? Is it on the way up? Yeah. As I come up here, as soon as I—
right now, it’s lifting my arms. As I’m right now, my muscles aren’t holding
my arms up at all. It’s all the vest. Paul told me there was a pretty significant
adjustment period, and that wearing the vest was, at first,
like a new pair of boots. But after a few weeks, he was sold. The energy level I have now versus what I had before is 100 percent different. Now, when I go home at night, when my wife says
“Let’s go somewhere,” I jump up, get in the shower. I have more energy to do things
around the house. My grandkids come over; I can play with them. Versus going home, plopping on the couch, and feeling like you’re dead until you gotta go to sleep and get up and come and do it all over again
the next day. For Ford, the exoskeleton is not about giving
people superhuman strength. It’s more about preventing injury caused
by repeating the same motion hundreds or even thousands of times a day. We’re trying to further reduce the amount
of injuries we have in our plants. But if you look at the body parts that are
still getting injured, it’s predominantly the shoulder. That’s our number one joint for injury. It’s also the longest to return to full
functionality and most costly, just because of the soft tissues in your shoulder. So we’re really trying to prevent shoulder
injuries in our assembly plant. That’s Marty Smets. He’s an ergonomics engineer who works on
human systems and virtual manufacturing at Ford. He’s the one who’s been evaluating different
options for exoskeletons, and ultimately decided to work with the company Ekso
on this vest. How many people right now are using this? So we only have four right now in the Michigan area. We’ve got a couple at Flat Rock assembly and a couple at Michigan assembly. And they’ve been using them,
pretty much full time, since May. How much do they cost? The devices are around $6,500 apiece. Yeah, it really doesn’t feel like I’m carrying
nine extra pounds. I think I felt worse after
Thanksgiving dinner than I feel right now. It’s probably 11 or 12 extra pounds if you eat
like I do… Speak for yourself! The vest that Ford is trying out happens to not
have any electronics in it. But some exosuits do, like this lower body exoskeleton from SuitX, a California-based company that’s also working on modular exoskeletons. We founded the company in 2012. We were at UC Berkeley, as graduate students,
under Professor Kazerooni. What problem were you and your team hoping
to solve when you decided to make these? We were hoping to solve a problem that people have without replacing the people for industrial use. They have a very harsh environment. They get
back injuries, shoulder injuries, and knee injuries all the time. We were hoping to make their work environment better. And do these have electronics in them? Not all of them.
Only the LegX has electronics. The electronics there are just to trigger
the mechanism, not necessarily running the mechanism. So it’s a very lightweight, low battery system. Okay, like Bluetooth? Yes. So the idea is that if you’re wearing an
exoskeleton with electronics, it’s communicating, but it’s not actually doing the work for
you? Exactly. So you see the exoskeleton as something that can help humans do more robotic-like work? Humans do robotic work? Um… I would call it robots helping human work, rather than humans doing robots’ work. SuitX also makes exoskeletons for medical
use cases. Their first released exoskeleton, the Phoenix, has literally allowed paralyzed people
to walk again. But medical exoskeletons, while arguably offering
more significant benefits, also tend to be a lot more expensive —
and need FDA approval. As far as our product map, we have a variety of exoskeletons. One for the elderly who can actually walk
for longer distances without getting tired. We also have exoskeletons for people who want
to run. They can run longer distances without getting tired. So their oxygen consumption
drops and they’ll be less fatigued. So that’s another product which is coming out. So, we are looking at a variety of elements
to give a little bit of an enhancement to the person —
either to reduce injuries or add capability. Okay. So, exoskeletons are not a new technology. Journals and research papers point to exoskeletons that were being developed back in the 1960s, often for military purposes. The idea was to “increase the capabilities
of ground soldiers beyond that of a human.” Since then, exoskeletons have taken on a life
of their own, whether they’ve appeared in pop culture, at trade
shows, or in much more legitimate use cases. In Japan, for example,
where both an aging and shrinking population mean
people are working into their 60s, companies like Panasonic,
Honda, and Cyberdyne have introduced a bunch of different industrial exoskeletons. But exoskeletons are still far from mainstream. One big challenge has always been comfort and design — in case that wasn’t obvious from the videos you’re looking at. Even when the benefits are clear,
they can take some getting used to. I have this fear of falling backwards suddenly that I don’t normally feel when I’m standing up. Or even when I squat, it’s kind of like, I feel like if I fell backwards now,
I wouldn’t actually know what to do. The economics of exoskeletons are also a challenge, according to Rich Mahoney, whose company Seismic, is working on what he calls “powered clothing.” What’s really interesting is that from an industrial and a medical point of
view, it is actually very difficult to bring any product to market, not just an exoskeleton. There hasn’t really been a form of an exoskeleton
at a price point and a use case that makes sense for consumer applications. The jury is still out on which market for
exoskeletons could potentially be the biggest. Some analysts say they make the most sense in the military. Others say they’re more valuable in health care or in the workplace. More big-name companies have been
experimenting with them, including Siemens, and Lowe’s, but they’re still relatively rare. But there’s no doubt, that this category of wearable robotics has advanced over the past several years. The future of exoskeletons, and powered clothing for that matter, is really related to the development of the technologies that you need to design them, — and so motors, batteries, sensors. And so, any developments that make motors more powerful and efficient, that make batteries more condensed,
that make sensors smaller and more efficient, are going to allow better exoskeletons, that still deliver the power that you need. Do you envision a future in which our exoskeletons
are completely connected, they’re smarter, they’re adjusting to you in real time? Absolutely. Right now, to us, this is the very earliest stage, we’re expecting a lot more clever devices. Just like any other technology,
like your cellphone five, 10 years ago was different from the cellphones you have right now. As you go along, these things will get added to that. It’s our responsibility to make sure those
features coming in are at the lowest cost to people. Mostly because the customer doesn’t have
much money. This is not a luxury item. This is for workers and also for people with mobility disorders who
really need these devices. So maintaining highest performance at lowest cost
is an engineering challenge. Thank you. You’re welcome. Are we good? Thank you. It was a pleasure. Nice to talk to you. It was a pleasure. Did you get that part too? This is crazy! I feel like I could use this in the ladies’ room when I don’t want to touch the seat.

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