Human workers granted “superpowers” with bionic suits

Much has been made in recent years of the inability of humans to perform certain tasks as well as robots, but in many roles, that human touch is still needed. Now, some companies are giving their workers some robotic aid in the form of bionic suits, bestowing them with superhuman powers that allow them not only to remain in their role but also to feel more comfortable carrying out their job.

Ford has been testing four different models of exoskeletal arms that can help alleviate the fatigue that often sets in for assembly line workers. Fellow car manufacturer Audi has been testing out robotic assist technology in its production plants for two years, while Hyundai has been working on a wearable robot suit.

Assembly line workers might have to carry out overhead tasks as many as 4,600 times a day, so it’s not surprising that they’re often plagued by pain throughout their upper body. The vest that gives Ford workers the superhuman capabilities needed to overcome these issues is known as the EksoVest. The company providing Ford with this technology, Ekso Bionics, has seen its stock climb in recent years.

Their EksoVest helps elevate and support workers’ arms while they are carrying out tasks underneath a car that has been jacked up over their heads on the production line. It offers adjustable lift assistance ranging from 5 to 15 pounds per arm. It accomplishes this by using torque to alleviate the stress placed on the workers’ shoulders.

The United Auto Workers union covered the cost of the vests used in the test. Ford is planning to expand the tests to South America and Europe soon.

So far, the reaction to Ford’s new exoskeletal arms has been positive. Workers say it is so lightweight that they hardly notice they’re wearing it, and it allows them a free range of arm movement.  Those who have tried it on say it feels much like an empty backpack.

One assembly line worker at their Michigan Assembly Plant, Paul Collins, was quoted in a press release as saying that his shoulders, neck and back often hurt after a shift as his job entails working over his head. He is responsible for attaching bolts and other parts to the underside of Ford’s cars. Since he started working with the new vest in May, he is less sore and has more energy to play with his grandchildren. He’s so impressed that he joked that they’ll have to fight him to get it back when the test ends in August.

Similar technology helping out in healthcare field

Universities like Massachusetts Institute of Technology and UC Berkeley have been working on technology that could be used in the medical field. For example, the GT product from Ekso is touted for its potential to help in medical rehabilitation. As the first exoskeleton to get FDA clearance for stroke and spinal cord injury rehabilitation, it was developed to help patients re-learn proper step patterns as well as how to shift their weight correctly for walking. A controller allows therapists to make real-time adjustments to adapt to the patients’ needs, and software allows for previously unseen levels of analysis and a higher degree of personalization.

Exoskeletal products are an area of great interest in healthcare, with ReWalk Robotics and Parker-Hannafin also hard at work on new products. Constructions and the loading and unloading of goods are also obvious areas of expansion for such technology.

A report from BCC Research that was released earlier this year predicted that the global market for these bionic devices could reach $12.1 billion by the year 2026; this is significant growth from last year’s $3.2 billion. The U.S. accounts for nearly 40 percent of the global market.

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