As technologies like ChatGPT and Advanced Augmented Reality enter the space, tools like exoskeletons no longer feel too futuristic. However, they remain a nascent addition to material handling. Exoskeleton developers, originally developed long ago for agricultural purposes and more recently for military use, have devoted hours to designing them to bring them into the industrial world to help with both manufacturing and warehousing.
Although still a novel concept, some manufacturers claim that exoskeletons will one day soon be standard personal protective equipment (PPE).
There are good reasons to get behind the idea. Despite tech layoffs, the nation continues to suffer from a crippling labor shortage. According to a recent report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the country has more than 10 million job openings but only 5.7 unemployed workers.
Within this segment, industries such as manufacturing and warehousing remain some of the most difficult jobs to recruit skilled workers for. It can be gritty, monotonous, physically demanding work, and that's a hard sell - especially to younger generations looking for positions that are more mentally challenging.
Material handling jobs are also loaded with repetition. "Imagine lifting hundreds of pounds an hour, thousands of times in a day," says Ilya Mirman, director of marketing and sales at Verve Motion . "Repetitive back strain has a huge impact on quality of life and also affects work performance."
Add to that an aging workforce that is less physically fit than in decades past, and the high cost of injury/health care, employee turnover and lost productivity, and the ergonomic support of exoskeletons is starting to look attractive.
"Companies see more value in their employees rather than viewing them as disposable," says Paul Nicholson, vice president of growth at HeroWear . "Back injuries and other ergonomic issues were taken for granted to stay the course. That's no longer the case."
Exoskeletons are lightweight, external frames, backpacks or vests that can support and even enhance an employee's tasks. In this capacity, they help prevent common injuries to the back, knees, shoulders and more. Today, there are more than 100 exoskeleton manufacturers, many of which are based in Europe, where the devices are more widely available than in the United States. Of the many exoskeleton companies, about a dozen are penetrating the material handling market, more of them still in manufacturing than warehousing.
Most exoskeleton designs fall into two main categories: passive and active systems. A passive system is based on the concept that a set of springs or elastics stores energy and returns it during a joint lift or movement. An active system is powered by batteries or sometimes even gas and provides more support than its passive counterpart.
Active systems are often what you might think of as an exoskeleton - a hard, rigid "skeleton" that mimics the structure of a body. Passive devices tend to be lighter and can resemble a backpack or vest, but there can also be an overlap between the two. Both have advantages and disadvantages to consider.
Although it was a fairly simple concept, getting exoskeletons to a practical usable location was somewhat difficult. However, the last decade finally brought the development needed to bring them to a more widely applicable version.
Exoskeletons are lightweight, external frames, backpacks or vests that can support and even enhance an employee's tasks.
"Today's exoskeletons don't look dramatically different from their earliest designs from the 19th century," Nicholson says. "What has taken so long for them to become practical is that they are hard to make so people can work comfortably in them. Historically, they've always slowed people down."
But that's changing, with a focus on lighter, more comfortable exoskeletons. "Materials science has finally caught up, so we've been able to make a device that is both strong enough and comfortable to wear," Nicholson explains. "There are a whole new set of options designed specifically for the user."
The more rigid, active systems provide more support and are often used for tasks that require the arms to be held above the head for extended periods of time - think car factory, for example.
Such a design can reduce back, shoulder and neck injuries. These systems can also play a role in heavy lifting tasks by assisting a user in bending, picking up and carrying a load from one place to another.
Smaller, lighter equipment like vests and backpacks also play a role. While not as heavy a skeleton, they can provide a lot of support to a worker during repetitive tasks in a warehouse or manufacturing area.
"Our backpacks can relieve up to 40 % of load and reduce muscle work," Mirman says. "The impact of that is dramatic, by a factor of up to 80 % or 90 %."
According to Anthony Pratt, vice president of sales at Ekso Bionics, not only will workers be more productive when wearing an exoskeleton, but by reducing injuries, a company can see a fairly quick ROI. "It all starts with workplace safety," Pratt says. "Exoskeletons reduce fatigue so workers are using the right techniques for their environment. It's a demonstration of investing in your workforce."
It also saves money on health care costs, high employee turnover and lost productivity. Consider that injuries and their health care costs in the United States are $14 billion per year, and the average injury causes a worker to miss 13 days of work, according to statistics compiled by Verve Motion. Productivity is lost on the order of 7 % to 10 %. If you offset those kinds of numbers with the purchase of an exoskeleton, you can expect an ROI in as little as six months, according to Nicholson.
Factors to consider
The important aspect to get right with an exoskeleton is comfort and wearability. Without it, you have no compliance and the suits remain unused. Today's options include softer materials and adjustable sizes, making them easier and more comfortable to wear.
"Ease of use is key," Pratt says. "Every body is different, so we work with end users in the field to measure and fit their particular size."
This reflects a general movement in the exoskeleton industry to offer more customized options, similar to other types of PPE. According to Nicholson, HeroWear's options take about 5 minutes to customize to the user. "We don't differentiate between small, medium and large; we build each body part modularly," he explains. "Then we set the right level of support for each person to maximize their performance."
The focus is on making lighter, more comfortable exoskeletons.
All told, after a week or so, most employees will have worked through some adjustments, trial-and-error processes and found the optimal point. "After that, they never look back," Nicholson says.
When an employee leaves, exoskeleton manufacturers can return and re-measure/customize the exoskeleton for his or her replacement. "We go on-site and re-measure the platform for the new end user," Pratt says. Right now, you can expect the average exoskeleton to last about four or five years, he adds, even over the course of multiple users.
Maintaining exoskeletons requires a few simple steps: At the end of a shift, workers should spray them with some sort of disinfectant solution and hang them to dry overnight.
Nicholson says the idea is not to share them from one worker to the next, but to make them available as PPE to employees who want them. HeroWear just announced an updated version of its suits that also makes most pieces machine washable, making maintenance much easier. "We also recommend a weekly checklist to make sure they are operational and in good condition," he says.
There is a general movement in the exoskeleton industry to offer more customized options, similar to other types of PPE.
Currently, the adoption of exoskeletons is in its infancy, says Bryan Jensen , chairman and executive vice president of consulting firm St. Onge Company . "Exoskeletons do a great job," he says, "and the adoption of passive suits is moderately widespread."
Still, the United States lags behind its European counterparts when it comes to getting on board with the devices. "Exoskeletons aren't being adopted the way they could be here," Jensen says. "In Europe, governments are doing a better job of protecting their employees, so they're ahead of the curve."
To determine if exoskeletons are appropriate for your surgeries, Jensen recommends weighing the cost of a back injury versus your investment in an exoskeleton.
"If you avoid three to four back injuries, you'll pay back that investment," he says. "But doing a comparative analysis can be difficult because it comes with strings attached. How do you know if you've avoided a back injury?"
Jensen adds that companies still haven't adopted a $50 belt in many warehouses, so it can sometimes be difficult to shop around for a much more expensive exoskeleton - often amounting to tens of thousands of dollars.
From Pratt's perspective, however, watching a worker experience the support of an exoskeleton for the first time should be enough to solidify their acceptance. "When people put it on for the first time and feel their pain go away, you can see it in their faces," Pratt adds. "The product is working."
Source: The Exoskeleton Evolution - Modern Materials Handling (mmh.com)