year. Levitate had already earned the CE marking for PPE in Europe and has been used
at BMW's Spartanburg, S.C. plant since 2016. Ford also used them at powertrain, engines
and transmission plants. The device, which is in more than 100 enterprises globally, had
also already demonstrated its ability to prevent fatigue, based on data collected on a Lincoln
electric VRTEX welding simulator, thus keeping weld quality consistent for a longer period.
The lightweight device feels like wearing a near empty backpack. Two firm braces cup the
wearers’ triceps to provide slight resistance when the arms are raised, and make the arm
muscles work 80% as hard as normal.
Joseph Zawaideh, Levitate’s VP of Marketing and Business Development, explains that
this is why Toyota's classified the Airframe as PPE, which was discovered through a battery
of testing involving electromyography (EMG), performed by Iowa State at Toyota Canada.
“They found a 20% average reduction in muscle load," Zawaideh explains.
While hooked up to wireless EMG sensors, 11 workers performed 10 various tasks at
multiple repetitions. It was found to reduce muscles activity in the deltoid (shoulder muscle)
in nine of 10 tasks. A study at John Deere found similar results. The upper trapezius (at
back of neck), though, had slightly increased activity and the researchers suggested neck
support be added.
A lot more work need to be done in the field, and standards are still in very early stages of
development, but based on purely the arm support versions, Zawaideh sees exoskeletons'
near limitless potential.
"It's getting a step closer to becoming mainstream,” he says. “You're not going to say
this is a great piece of innovation anymore, it going to be a be like safety glasses.”
Like Suitx, Levitate has adopted a kaizen philosophy toward product development, looking
for ways to improve the user experience while keeping the price point down. Zawaideh says
they are looking at mesh straps and reducing touchpoints for better breathability, while
adding high and low-reach accessories to stretch the support beyond the 30 to 140-deg.
range. Anti-scratch covers for the metal components, and a head rest, are also optional.
A new FR (Flame Resistant) rated Airframe, which went into full production last month,
is now used at shipyards and heavy equipment manufacturers, allows it to be used for hot
work, such as welding and grinding. This version is $6,000, and required nearly all new
material, from FR fabric and Velcro to an aluminum frame. The cassettes—the proprietary
mechanical system of pulleys that props the arm up—could not be altered, so they are
covered in FR fabric.
Levitate grew 200% from 2017 to 2018, and judging by the high level of interest Levi-tate's booth garnered at our sister publication Industry Week's Manufacturing & Technology
event in April, 2019 should be another year of exponential growth.
The business side is also taking these developments seriously, indicated by a workman's
compensation carrier has begun its own trials with the Airframe to see if this is a way to
reduce payouts and cut customer premiums.
There's no guarantee exoskeletons are a long-term fix for any of the problems ailing the
manufacturing and construction workforce, let alone all of them. Just like with robots, there
will applications where they excel and others where they are more trouble than they are
worth. From a storage standpoint alone, it would be hard to imagine every factory worker
has their own device (it's not recommended to share due to fit and sanitary concerns).
But more than anything, what this next generation of exoskeletons prove is that there
are huge opportunities for improvement and customization, and therefore, they present
the very real possibility of improving more people's health and wellness.
"We're tired of people having bodies too broken to play with grandkids," says Zawaideh.
And as exoskeletons prove their worth in new jobs and with all types of workers,
showing that you can perform back-breaking labor without actually breaking your back
(or sustaining muscle injury), it may show younger workers that manufacturers no
longer underrate their employees.
Zawaideh says early results suggest these devices will help with worker retention:
"They will not resist jobs anymore because they will not have to suffer the conse-quences."
FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT: NEWEQUIPMENT.COM
The Airframe has optional accessories, such as a headrest to support the neck when the user is
Toyota recently made the Airframe exoskeleton mandatory PPE for overhead work at two of its
North American plants.