“Exoskeletons” are those mechanical devices or soft materials worn by patients/operators, whose construction mirrors the structure of operator’s limbs, joints, and muscles, works in tandem with them. Exoskeletons are used as a capabilities amplifier, assistive device, haptic controller, or for rehabilitation. Exoskeletons stand in contrast to non-articulated mechanisms such as braces and slings that do not work complimentarily with human operators.
Many early models were designed for military applications, with defense departments, primarily in the US, funding research and development initiatives. Commercialization efforts followed, led by exoskeletons designed for medical rehabilitation (often for wounded veterans), or as mobility aids allowing paraplegics to stand upright, walk and climb stairs (quality-of-life exos).
Exoskeletons designed for performing manual labor tasks in industrial environments are now commercially available. More importantly, exo research is ongoing and more industrial products are coming. It is easy to see why. Many industrial processes are too complex to automate with existing technology. At the same time, some of this same work is too physically demanding or risky to be accomplished by humans.
Exoskeleton technology can act as a bridging solution between the extremes of fully manual, non-technology enabled tasks, to those operations that demand traditional industrial robots. Exoskeletons exploit the intelligence of human operators and the strength, precision and endurance of industrial robots.
The business benefits of commercial/industrial exoskeletons are obvious and easily quantified. They include increased productivity, with a concomitant reduction in the number of worker related injuries, as well as decreased need for expensive, “full on” robotic solutions.
Industrial exoskeletons are primarily being used (or under evaluation) in support manufacturing and logistics work. While the market for wearable, human-guided, industrial exoskeletons is still in its nascency, the opportunity for solution providers is very large.
For example, ABI Research finds that the total addressable market (TAM) for commercial/industrial exoskeletons currently exceeds 2.6 million units, with those featuring technologies that support standing and squatting, the most common type. Many developers of military and healthcare exoskeleton technologies have now added industrial systems to their product lines.
The first generation of military and rehabilitation exoskeletons shared many features. Both types were composed of ridged, often heavy, structural elements, including belts, actuators, struts, clips and more. When used, the devices often interfered with the body’s natural movements, decreasing efficiency and run times, and forcing the wearer to expend a great deal of energy to compensate. That is, the use of the exoskeletons produced results that are the opposite of the purported benefits of the technology – power and endurance augmentation.
The early military and rehabilitation exoskeletons were also powered using battery packs. Unfortunately, the portable power technology of the time was often too power limited and heavy to for extended work.
Powered and Unpowered Exoskeletons
The new generation of commercial/industrial exos, some still under development, have benefitted from more efficient battery solutions, while some have resorted non-traditional power solutions such as compressed air. Examples of commercial class powered exoskeletons include Innophys’ Muscle Suit, Activelink’s Powerloader Ninja, Cyberdyne’s HAL for Labor Support RB3D’s HERCULE, Esko Bionics’ Esko Vest, Sarcos Robotics’ Guardian XO and Noonee’s Chairless Chair.
In contrast to powered exoskeletons, unpowered or ‘passive’ exoskeletons increase strength and provide stability through a combination of human guided flexion/extension and locking mechanisms. Unpowered exos for commercial and industrial use includes suitX’s MAX Exoskeleton Suite, Ekso Bionics’ Work Vest, StrongArm Technologies’ FLx ErgoSkeleton, Laevo’s Laevo and Lockheed Martin’s Fortis.
Rigid and Soft Exoskeletons
Rigid exos can produce musculoskeletal stress and fatigue due to their weight, as well as the unnatural or constrained movement of the suit. As a result, a number of companies are developing new types of soft exoskeletons made of soft, lightweight, compliant materials. The systems themselves are powered with soft muscle actuators or compressed air, or use flexion/extension mechanisms. Bioservo Technologies’ Ironhand and Daiya Industry’s Power Assist Glove serve as examples.
In a manner to first generation systems, groups developing soft exo systems for military, and even consumer applications, such as Harvard University and SuperFlex, respectively, are sure to target the industrial sector at some point.
Researchers from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied and Sciences (SEAS) are exploring how machine learning can personalize soft exoskeleton controls. The researchers used a technique called “human-in-the-loop optimization.” This uses real-time measurements of human physiological signals, such as breathing rate, to adjust the control parameters. As the algorithm honed in on the best parameters, it directed the exosuit on when and where to deliver assistive force.
More to Come
Supported by advances in materials, battery and actuator technologies, new exoskeletons designed for industrial work will continue to come to market. The role for these systems will also expand, and the number of industries employing these technologies will also increase (think construction, agriculture and more). The reasons are obvious: business benefits in terms of increased productivity, reduced worker injuries, and more, are simply too many, and too large, to ignore.