(Guest Post)– Modern industrial technologies are all about increasing worker efficiency, benefiting employee health and overall enhancement in total production. Automation in industries is taking place at various levels, exoskeletons are one of them. However, the use of exoskeletons is not entirely new.
GE and the US Armed Forces have teamed up since the 1960’s to research, and build, armors for soldier support, flexibility and protection. With the Military’s TALOS Exosuit expected to hit the battlefield in 2018, many other companies are starting to adopt and develop prototypes for applications outside of the battlefield. Naturally, manufacturing and production facilities have set their eyes on exoskeletons to support their employees with added protection, mobility, and motorized/counterweight assistance.
Exoskeletons R&D, Usage and Pricing
As I mentioned above, the research and development of an exoskeleton dates way back to the 60’s, but using them commercially is still in its toddler phase. The early exoskeletons required a an umbilical connection to a power supply, so they were really just machines that a human could step into and control.
In modern times, exoskeletons are now, more or less, wearable frames used to assist an employee, making his job easier and preventing excessive strain on the body.
For the manufacturing facilities that have began using exoskeletons, a decrease in employee injuries, and workman’s comp lawsuits have been seen.
The prime customers for exoskeletons are automobile manufacturers, aviation and shipbuilding industries, medical facilities and any other industry that requires heavy lifting, critical movements, unnatural maneuvering.
Market estimations predict that the exoskeleton industry will be worth $2+ billion within the next decade. As a prime source of industrial parts and tools, China is leading the exoskeleton market as of now, however, USA, Japan, Korea and some European countries are not too far behind.
To ensure all industries get access to exoskeleton suits, arms, and other such equipment, the manufacturers need to bring the price down. Right now, a decent wearable exoskeleton suit retails for $23,000 and goes all the way up to $100,000. For the majority of industries in the world, an expenditure of $100,000 per employee is way too high to see a reasonable ROI.
Available Exoskeleton Types
The type of exoskeletons varies, but the most common ones currently, or coming to market are –
- Exoskeleton Arms: These are typically spring loaded to support heavy tools. They usually attach to a lower body frame,which through the use of gyro-sensors and counterweights, allows the heavy tools to be supported by the ground itself.
- Wearable Suits: Wearable exoskeletons add full body support that can be highly customizable to specific tasks. Wearable suits are usually what you picture when you think of exoskeletons. Now, they are becoming better, smarter, and less bulky.
- Supportive Exoskeletons: These come in the form of back-support, chair-less chairs, and gloves. Back support helps workers to lift heavy items without hurting their back. Chairless chairs are lightweight and attach over work pants, allowing the workers to sit anywhere or lock their legs in place when crouching. The powered gloves are used to add increased gripping power.
- “Supernumerary” Exoskeletons: Remember Doctor Octopus from Spider-Man 2? The supernumerary exoskeletons are quite similar. They add additional arms, typically 2, so that humans can go beyond their capabilities. However, these exoskeletons are still in the prototype phase while the robotics are improved to make them more viable.
Positive Impact on Industry and Automation
Exoskeletons are certainly making lives easier for the industry workers, especially those who work directly down the factory line, logistics and operation teams. Initial investment to initiate an exoskeleton based production facility is very high in the beginning but in the long run, it brings a company more profit and efficiency.
The positive impacts of exoskeletons are –
- Happy Workers: The key to a more productive industry is to keep the workers happy, motivated, and healthy. Exoskeletons can help with that. Giving your workers added body support to complete their tasks results in less injuries, less soreness, and less exhaustion.
- Enhanced Skillset: Since exoskeletons can enable and support workers doing tasks that were otherwise dangerous or to heavy for a single employee to do, they will be able to enhance their skills and become more confident completing tasks.
- Declining Cost per Employee: Lesser strain on the body means more consciousness at work, which leads to a minimal number of sickness or injury due to workload. The cost of injury lawsuits and the amount of employee down time is also reduced in the long run, resulting in a positive ROI. Adopting exoskeletons also show the workers that you care about their health, making them more likely to respect you and the company more, reducing the amount of employee turnover and cost of training.
Beginning of a New Era
By the end of this decade, a new era in industrialization should commence. With all the talks of technology and robots taking human jobs, it is nice to see a viable technology that does not replace the human, just simply enhances them to perform the tasks easier and more efficiently.
About my Guest:
Greg Conrad is a writer for Ax Control