Could exoskeletons play a role in keeping an active and healthy workforce?

Exoskeletons – wearable mechanical structures that attach to joints to assist and/or enhance strength and endurance for motion – have now become part of our reality

While still relatively niche, the exoskeleton market has expanded in recent years. The Exoskeleton Report’s updated 2021 directory listed 118 companies worldwide working on 172 exoskeletons that are on sale or soon to be commercialised. It represents a significant rise from the start of 2020, which registered 80 such companies. The same report noted that 51 companies in its directory are making exosuits for workplace purposes. This is because, in addition to assisting in rehabilitation, exoskeletons can well be applied as preventive equipment to limit worker injury and fatigue.

A small-scale pilot experience of about 40 exosuit-assisted workers found promising results, with workers reporting that the exoskeletons provided a reduction of 73% in lower back discomfort, and lowered work effort by 30%. Moreover, 80% felt that these mechanical add-ons could prevent injuries of the lower back. Another example is the Cray X from German Bionic, which allows a worker to easily carry around weights of up to 30kg, with its embedded Smart Safety Companion system also helping prevent common lifting injuries. “It’s a real-time software application that runs in the background and can warn the worker when the ergonomic risk is getting too high,” Norma Steller, German Bionic’s Head of IoT, told Engadget. “For example, recommending a break because we know that… the repetition and the overall stress can lead to fatigue, and fatigue can lead to injuries. This is something we want to prevent.”

[Source – Feb 8 2022]

While the exoskeleton market is maturing, there are still hurdles that developers of that equipment must overcome before achieving wider adoption. Firstly the cost can be a barrier to entry (Wandercraft’s clinical exoskeleton amounts to around €150,000); then there’s the weight of the device (the Cray X comes as a 7kg backpack); and unforeseen challenges given the novelty of such devices (researchers are investigating the neurocognitive ‘cost’ to exoskeleton users).
How might manufacturing understand how to potentially adopt this technology and follow research towards determining when/how and during what tasks exoskeletons should be used on to maximise worker safety and support an ageing workface?