always aim to improve our employee health and working conditions
and if we can do that and at the same time save 30 seconds on a
process that is repeated 1,000 times, that truly is a win for all."
Testing is ongoing and Siemens Gamesa would deploy globally
if the ShoulderX's impact and adaptability can be proven.
By itself, this is an interesting development for a small company
that you can’t help but love. The co-founders are former students
of Kaz who use the plain office space to help patients walk for
the first time with the Phoenix device and are currently scaling it
down to fit children. As a testament to its dreamy ambitions, the
office is next to Pixar Animation Studios. They even assemble
the various exoskeletons from hand.
What's most interesting, though, is how Kaz's success has
led to a rush of new competitors, all out to grab a chunk of a
potentially lucrative market. Global Market Insights projects the
industrial exoskeletons market to rise from $27.7 million in 2018
to $459.6 million in 2026.
Aside from helping make rich investors richer, this upswing
will guarantee that the choice of exoskeletons will expand while
the price will drop.
"The last couple of years have been pretty transformational
for the exoskeleton community," says Marty Smets, a technical
expert for Human Systems and Virtual Manufacturing at Ford.
"There's been a lot of onboarding in enterprise, both in aerospace
and automotive and construction."
Smets' work table at Ford's Advanced Manufacturing Center
near Detroit alone has three different arm-supporting exoskeletons on it: Ekso Bionics' EksoVest, SuitX's shoulderX V3, and
"Many companies are going after productivity," says Smets,
giving the example of a socket light assembler trying to increase
installation by 10%. "We're going after injury reduction."
Each device looks a little different but are basically a series
of buckles and straps sprouting off a rigid frame. The 4.5-lb.
Paexo, meant for lightwork, is slender and austere, while the
9.5-lb. EksoVest is clearly more robust. Smets points out that
ShoulderX's fan would come in handy in Brazil or Thailand.
He likes to keep his options open.
"I can't control how fast the technology comes out, but I can
be ready to deploy the right product when the right product is
ready," Smets says.
To that end, Ford is right in the middle of a two-year study exploring the efficacy of the $6,000 EksoVest in nine North American
facilities. The surveys collect data on user discomfort, fit feel, range
of motion, thermal issues, barriers keeping them from using them
all the time. They are compared to a control group not wearing the
Ford started with a pilot project funded by the UAW in 2017 to
help the assembly workers focusing on overhead work, mostly on
the vehicle undercarriage resting on a lift. They may raise their arms
4,600 times a day, which increases the risk for those expensive
shoulder injuries, like a rotator cuff tear.
EksoVest alleges to relieve strain best when lifting 5 to 15 lb.
per arm, such as an impact drill or piece of paneling. So far, the
evidence seems to support their usefulness.
They are looking for decreases in effective discomfort, muscle
activity and an increase in endurance.
At SuitX headquarters in Emeryville, Calif., which serves as the assembly plant, offce and lab, Steven Sanchez performs
the dual role of chief pilot of the Phoenix medical exoskeleton and overall product quality inspector.
"We've seen significant decreases in discomfort in upper limbs and upper back," Smets says.
This is not enough to sell Smets just yet, though.
"That’s all well and good," he says, "What I don’t know, and what the world doesn’t know yet, is will it
mean in two years that I will have fewer injuries on my line?"
That is the root of what Smets, and every exoskeleton user, wants to know. They won’t find out if users
won’t wear them for two hours, let along two years.
"If they don’t find perceived value, they might not wear it," Smets says, "and if there is any perceived
discomfort, you're going to dust it."
That's why at Michigan Assembly Plant, which underwent an overhaul for the new Ranger truck, Ford is
offering their brand-new operators the chance to select their own exoskeleton that fits them best. It makes
sense as they are all about the same price point ($5,000-7,000) and you wouldn’t mandate every worker
wear the same size safety shoe.
"We're hoping giving them a choice like this it will increase their utilization," says Smets.
"There's a lot still to learn and the problem is every new device is different," Smets says. "What I am
becoming more sure of in this wearable space is we can't count on one product to solve all problems."
Down with PPE
While Ford has methodical, err-on-the-side-of-caution approach, Toyota has already made Levitate Technolo-gies' Airframe exoskeletons mandatory at two of their North American plants for overhead work: Woodstock,
Ont., and Princeton, Ind., which assembles 400,000 SUVs and minivans a year.
The Woodstock, Ont. Plant, where the RAV4 is built, has 150 devices for use in weld shop inspections. There
are more than 200 in use at the Princeton, Indiana, plant, which assembles 400,000 SUVs and minivans a