It's 2019 and the workforce burdens bearing down on plant managers and super- visors are heavy enough to make Atlas break a sweat. They can't find the right people who are both willing and educated, or the best people had to go and do a stupid thing like get old. Or even worse, suffer a musculoskeletal injury on the job. In Q1 of this year, one out of every four manufacturers turned down new business
opportunities because they lacked the workers, according to the National Association
of Manufacturing. Nearly every company is vulnerable, every factory susceptible, even
highly automated plants run by genius billionaire philanthropists.
Last year Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted: "Yes, excessive automation at Tesla was a
mistake. To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated."
Fortunately, Homayoon Kazerooni, a brilliant Iranian engineer who immigrated to the U.S.
right before the Ayatollah took over, has always sought to bring out the best in humanity.
He's done it through decades of research into functional exoskeletons, wearable
devices that mechanically enhance human movement, from locomotion to
lifting—using robots to pick up the slack for our areas of weakness.
"The writing was on the wall 20 years ago," Kazerooni laments. "Robots
cannot replace people. We just cannot wait for the robots to show up. We
need to come up with solutions for workers right now."
The professor at the University of California, Berkeley started by develop-
ing powered lower-body exoskeletons for soldiers hauling heavy loadouts,
Kaz, as he likes to be called, founded two of the leading
manufacturers of these medical devices, first at Ekso Bionics
and currently SuitX (where he is CEO). They are two of the four
devices in the world approved by the FDA. For just this work
alone, his (unofficial) title as Father of Exoskeletons would
be secure, but in the last half of this decade Ekso and SuitX
have developed industrial exoskeletons as the potential solu-
tion to all those workforce-related anvils resting on the chest of
companies requiring manual labor.
Ironically, as big a problem as keeping workers safe, productive
and (now most importantly) willing to consider the job is, the
wearable devices themselves are fairly simple. Most of the time
you don’t even notice them working.
The most mature of these by a wide margin are the devices
that support arms.
These passive, or unpowered, exoskeletons have one specific job: reduce the strain of
lifting or holding an object, be it a box or a drill. That's it, which is enough to have every
major manufacturer in automotive, aerospace, and heavy equipment finding areas to
leverage this new breed of exoskeletons.
SuitX is already on its third model of its ShoulderX, which has been tailored to address
user feedback surrounding comfort, weight and breathability, while still remaining at
"Worker's acceptance is a huge deal. If they don’t like it, they don’t wear it," Kazerooni says.
He likens it to having an ill-fitting pair of shoes and how that could affect your ability
to work. Part of that is fit, and the ShoulderX is one size fits all (except for the shorter
5% of females). For comfort, the connection to the wearer is wider and distributes the
force better. Carbon fiber was added to reduce weight from 11. 7 lb to just 7. 4 lb.
Finally, breathability had to improve. Thomas Edison always said success was
90% perspiration, and this inventor took that to heart by personally wearing the
device all day long searching for every sweat spot.
Two major improvements were made. First, the back brace was made from a
nylon mesh to improve air flow. More importantly for users in high exertion or high
temperature areas, a small fan was added to cool the user's back.
Other options include fire-retardant and dust-proof versions. Kazerooni says
now that the ShoulderX has been improved, the LegX and BackX—which work
modularly with each other and ShoulderX—will receive similar upgrades.
"We have all these options because we go everywhere and want
to become universal," Kazerooni says.
They even may have a recreational unit (for hiking and other outdoor
activities) by end of year.
The improvements caught the attention of Siemens Gamesa, which
makes really, really huge fans (wind turbines) and has chosen SuitX as
its preferred supplier to deploy at its manufacturing sites.
"Ideally, we will see a lower level of injuries and tiredness and a
higher level of productivity, showing that you can do good for the
company and do good for your employees at the same time," says
Claus Lindberg Nielsen, head of tooling at Siemens Gamesa. "We
By John Hitch
The latest wave of passive exoskeletons are tailor-made to fit in a growing number of
The ShoulderX V3, which is used to reduce muscle strain during overhead work,
now has carbon fber parts to make it lighter and a mesh backing and cooling
fan to improve breathability.