After successful pilots at two plants in Dearborn, Michigan the past 16 months, Ford is rolling out 75 upper body EksoVest exoskeletons across 15 automotive plants worldwide. The automaker has partnered with Ekso Bionics to augment its employee’s capabilities in the US, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Romania, China and Thailand in the coming months.
The is the largest adoption of exoskeletons by a company yet. Ford says it hopes to reduce the number of injuries its employees suffer due to repetitive motion. Ford says EksoVest will help jobs “get completed to a higher level of quality, in a shorter amount of time, increasing both productivity and morale.” That, of course, would be a good thing for Ford.
The EksoVest, which costs $6,000, won’t give the employees super-human strength while they build Ford vehicles. But it will offer passive mechanical support to the wearers as the perform overhead tasks. As a person reaches up, the EkoVest offers their arms additional assistance. The higher they reach, the more support EksoVest provides. EksoVest fits workers between 5 feet 2 inches tall to 6 feet 4 inches tall and offers lift assistance for loads of between 5lb and 15lb per arm (2.3kg to 6.8kg).
Ford’s assembly line workers lift their arms during overhead tasks roughly one million times per year. The companies say the physical activity of the Ford worker’s is similar to a person lifting a bag of flour or a watermelon above their head 4,600 times a day. EksoVest can also Ford’s employees lift larger under-body components into place, such as skid plates and bumpers.
During the trials, Ford employees wore the EksoVest for 86% of their shifts. Ford workers say it’s comfortable because it’s lightweight and not bulky, allowing them to move their arms easily. “I don’t want the EksoVest to ever leave,” said Nick Gotts, an original EksoVest operator at Flat Rock Assembly, “Any job that’s overhead, I wouldn’t work without it.”
Richmond, California-based Ekso Bionics also makes exoskeletons that are designed to help stroke and spinal cord injury rehabilitation and others that support construction workers. Ekso Bionics surged as much as 26 percent Tuesday after Ford said workers in 15 of its factories would use upper-body exoskeleton technology to support their arms while screwing bolts and performing other overhead tasks.
“At Ekso, our mission is to augment human capability with wearable technology and robotics that help people rethink current physical limitations and achieve the remarkable,” said Jack Peurach, president and chief executive officer of Ekso Bionics. “Advancing our collaboration with a global leader like Ford, represents a major step forward in achieving our mission as our EksoVest is deployed around the world to enhance the well-being of its work force.”
Coincidentally, Ekso Bionics is headquartered in the former Richmond, California Ford factory that opened in 1931 and was the largest auto assembly plant on the West Coast. The plant manufactured Model A and AA vehicles before it was retooled during WWII to process tanks and jeeps at the direction of Franklin D. Roosevelt.