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Can robotic exoskeletons make our human workers stronger?

"Humanoid robots solve the global labor crisis!"

"Thanks to humanoids, the productivity of the workforce is increasing!"

Made you look good.

The reality is that it will probably be years - some even say decades - before we read headlines like this.

But today's industry innovators want to ensure that humanoid robots will eventually have a transformative impact on businesses worldwide - and sooner than we think.

One start-up, Figure, even believes that humanoid general-purpose robots could eventually make manual labor "optional", which could significantly increase global productivity and create a future with a "significantly higher standard of living".

An impressive vision for tomorrow, indeed. But the fact is that companies are looking for workplace solutions that help their employees work harder, faster and more efficiently. and healthier work.


Many companies are already turning to more "traditional" robotics and automation technologies - industrial and service robots working on factory floors and in other environments - to support their efforts. By speeding up processes and improving efficiency, they reduce pressure on the workforce and even create jobs. The World Economic Forum estimates that technologies such as AI, automation and robotics could create millions more jobs than they destroy by 2025.

For other companies, however, it is difficult to implement robotics solutions because the economics and benefits are simply not right. In some manufacturing environments, for example, precision robots take time and money to design, and their industrial processes need to run like clockwork to avoid costly production downtime.

That's why I think it's a good time for companies to try out another strand of robotics innovation: the exoskeleton.


Exoskeletons are wearable robotic devices that can literally support employees and companies in a way that conventional robotic technologies cannot.

Long hailed as a transformative medical technology for people with physical mobility impairments, exoskeletons have been largely overlooked as a business solution to address labor shortages and increase productivity - especially in roles involving highly physical and repetitive work.

Workers can wear different exoskeleton models on a specific joint, such as the wrist or knee; on different parts of the body, such as the torso; or as a full body suit. They can be powered (active) or non-powered (passive) models and even incorporate features such as machine learning algorithms that allow them to adapt their design features to a user's unique movements.

Whatever form they take, exoskeleton devices are designed to work with the wearer's body to improve their ability to carry heavy loads, reducing discomfort and fatigue that physically demanding, repetitive tasks can cause.

More importantly, they can also help protect workers from debilitating muscle strain, injury and long-term health problems, including work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs).

This important capability represents a massive potential advantage for businesses, given the crippling impact that WMD-related injuries have long had on workers and businesses worldwide. Consider these sobering statistics:

In 2019, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that WMSDs accounted for nearly 28 % of all days of absence from work among private sector workers with occupational injuries or illnesses in the U.S. - far more than any other cause.


OSHA investigations in the EU revealed similar results. In 2016, weapons of mass destruction caused production losses of 17.2 billion euros and labor productivity losses of 30.4 billion euros in Germany alone.


EY Global Innovation teams recently tested a range of exoskeletons designed for use in the workplace. We saw first-hand how different exoskeleton models can help workers with repetitive heavy lifting tasks - and how they need time to adapt their bodies to them.

EY teams tested an active exoskeleton designed to protect a user's back while performing tasks such as picking up and putting down heavy objects. It can provide the user with up to 66 pounds of support while lifting and walking. This means that a worker wearing an exoskeleton and carrying a 99-pound box will feel like the item weighs only 33 pounds.

In recent years, extensive laboratory research by product developers and field testing at major global employers has shown how exoskeletons can mitigate some of the causes and effects of WMSDs. Automotive manufacturers are among those testing exoskeletons as a solution for manual assembly tasks that are fast-paced, precise and physically demanding.

However, continued real-world testing and product innovation will be paramount to ensure that exoskeletons are safe for widespread adoption. Without these sustained efforts, product innovators will not have the critical data and analysis needed to develop exoskeletons that can truly change workers' lives and impact employers' bottom lines.


Despite the wealth of research and testing that has been conducted to date, exoskeletons have not yet achieved the widespread acceptance required to become a mainstay in the workplace. For one thing, many industry studies still cover the potentialThe report highlights the risks and benefits of exoskeletons.

Based on our own testing, I believe that exoskeleton technology is reaching an exciting tipping point and I am incredibly confident about its potential future in the workplace. However, more employers are now needed to actively explore how exoskeletons can impact the wellbeing of their employees and their businesses.

Finally, it's important to remember that exoskeletons are not about turning workers into superhumans. Their biggest advantage is the crucial ergonomic support they provide, which can reduce the long-term damage and injuries workers suffer from frequent, repetitive physical labor. These capabilities could ultimately prove groundbreaking for employees and businesses.

It may be a while before we meet our humanoid counterparts at the company water cooler. In the meantime, exoskeletons can provide workers with the extra strength and support they need to protect them from injury, make their jobs easier and safer, and deliver the productivity boost that companies around the world are striving for.

Tom Illauer

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