Automation is a powerful tool, increasing produc- tivity in manufacturing scenarios with high-vol- ume, repetitive tasks, and handling materials with predetermined sizes, weight, and geometries. These automated lines are carefully designed and optimized for high throughput of items with set parameters.
However, manufacturing environments with a high mixof size and weight products can be challenging for traditional automation approaches. Adapting fixed processes to high-mix material handling is challenging and typically requires aredesign of the assembly process leaving tools and workersidle—which is an expensive proposition.
Besides, not everything can be automated. Manual materialhandling during assembly, as well as shipping/receiving andkitting, are often unavoidable for any manufacturing process.
Cranes, manipulator arms, trucks, and other lift-assistsare often used to support these manual processes but havelimitations in some scenarios. Mobile machines can be largeand cumbersome and can’t always go where they are needed. Fixed assists are time-consuming and costly to movebetween work cells.
However, a new, emerging tool can provide the flexibilitymanufacturers need to fill these gaps: powered full-body exoskeletons. These exoskeletons help workers lift hundreds ofpounds without strain, easily maneuver throughout a facility,and support a wide range of tasks. In a sense, powered exoskeletons are a type of wearable lift-assist, supporting manualmaterial handling in places automation, and fixed assistssimply cannot go.
HOW POWERED FULL-BODY
Full-body powered exoskeletons are designed to amplify a human operator’s strength and endurance withoutadding strain, like the Guardian XO exoskeleton fromSarcos Robotics.
These full-body robots transfer their weight, and theweight of the object being carried, through the suit and directly to the ground—reducing the impact to the wearer. Foradditional operational safety, the Guardian XO robot enablesthe user to sense a small percentage of the payload’s weight(for contextual awareness) but at a much lower level. As anexample, 200 lb. feels like ten.
Powered exoskeletons enable a great range of motion—operators can walk, lift, push/pull, and bend. The robot’s advanced control system, and more than a hundred embeddedsensors, rapidly measure operator movements and respond inkind, making the robot feel like an extension of the user’sbody. Workers simply do their jobs while the robot simultaneously augments their strength and moves with them fluidly. And because powered exoskeletons move in tandem withtheir operators, they can readily support tasks that requirecomplex motions.
Additionally, for many manual assembly tasks, two or more
workers must collaborate on a single process—one holding a
component in place while the other handles the install. A
powered full-body exoskeleton, like the Guardian XO, en-
ables one worker to do the same job alone. With the hands-
free feature, the operator can lift the component and lock the
robot’s arms to hold the object in place. From there, they can
release from the robotic arm to complete more dexterous
tasks by hand, such as securing a rivet or other fastener.
POWERED EXOSKELETONS GO WHERE
FIXED AUTOMATION CAN’T
From a manufacturing standpoint, the most crucial advantages of powered full-body exoskeletons may be their mobility and versatility. Such features enable them to go whereneeded and make them a powerful tool to allow agile manufacturing and continuity of work—ultimately increasing productivity and safety.
While automation is a vital feature on any high productionline, manual material handling, such as receiving materialsand kitting components for shipment, is commonplace.
In both scenarios, workers must often handle bulky, heavyobjects. Many parts have odd geometries, making them difficult, time-consuming, and sometimes dangerous to maneuver by hand. Powered exoskeletons can help workers packageand unpackage materials, sequence them, and move them tothe appropriate assembly stations as they are needed.
In the final stage, large, heavy, and bulky finished assemblies, such as the pieces that make up a drill bit for oil and gasdrilling, must be manually kitted for shipment. These assemblies can have multiple parts, many of which are heavy steeland difficult to lift. Powered full-body exoskeletons can simplify this cumbersome process, both at the factory and out inthe field, where the parts must be unpacked and assembled.
The added strength that powered exoskeletons providemeans one person can lift a heavy part that might otherwiserequire two or more workers. Minimizing these team-liftscan reduce injury, help maintain social distancing, and enhance productivity.
In an agile manufacturing environment, where workers
must handle items with different weights, sizes, and shapes,
robotic assistance can speed up production. Supported by
full-body, powered exoskeletons, both assembly line and lo-
gistics workers can lift heavier objects with less fatigue, al-
lowing them to work faster and for more extended periods,
acting as productivity multipliers. These robots can also be
dynamically deployed to help manage demand surges, alle-
viating the need to modify fixed lift-assists, a complicated
and expensive process. Exoskeletons can also have a pro-
found impact on safety. Many workplace injuries are caused
by lifting: carrying too much weight for too long, making
awkward lifts, or using poor form. U.S. workers and compa-
nies spend more than $100 billion each year to remedy back
issues from on-the-job injuries1. Lower back pain is second
only to the common cold among physical conditions that
keep people away from work.
Shoulder injuries from handling heavy high-torque toolsduring assembly, pushing and pulling heavy loads, and other tasks are also serious concerns and even more expensiveto treat per case than back issues. Powered full-body exoskeletons can reduce these numbers. Because they providevital assistance when workers are lifting and positioningbulky parts, pushing/pulling carts for sequencing, unloading parts, or operating high-torque tools, they can help prevent injuries. Also, for workers who must perform heavylifting tasks for many hours, powered exoskeletons reducefatigue, one of the many factors that can heighten injuryrisks. According to OSHA, fatigue alone costs manufacturers $135 billion from lost production2.
In addition to reducing the lost time from injuries, powered exoskeletons can also mitigate skilled worker shortages. These tools can keep older workers on the job longer,retaining their knowledge and experience. Also, the abilityto augment the worker’s physical strength helps level theplaying field and opens the job pool to more people.
FLEXIBILITY ENHANCES PRODUCTIVITY
Powered full-body exoskeletons can be utilized acrossvarious situations: manual packaging and unpackaging,moving heavy materials to the appropriate workstations, oreven handling a task that’s difficult to automate. This flexibility brings more versatility to manufacturing and is an ideal tool to support agile manufacturing.
This flexibility is ultimately the most significant benefit toa powered full-body exoskeleton. It’s not designed to do anyone specific job. Instead, like the person operating it, it canperform many different tasks, easing the burden of manualmaterial handling and helping manufacturers respond rapidly to customer needs.
1 Source: Spine Research Institute & OSHA, 2014. https://spine.osu.edu/blog/2014/08/addressing-high-corporate-costs-back-pain-and-other-msds
Powered Robotic Exoskeletons AddFlexibility to Manufacturing