How exoskeletons can help to power the warehouses of the future

Modern Exoskeleton

Up until recently, the wearable technology market has been dominated by smartwatches and fitness trackers. But that could drastically change in the near future.

Wearable tech may eventually be used for the entire body, helping the wearer become stronger, faster, more mobile, and more mindful of their biometric data.

Where is it most needed?

Lifting and carrying heavy objects is one of the most common causes of a back injury.  The theory states that as long as a person maintains constant proper form, they should not experience any back pain.

The problem occurs when you fall out of good form because of fatigue or lifting a load that causes too much demand on the back muscles. Likewise, back injuries can be exacerbated when regularly working in a forward bending position. This is unavoidable in a multitude of professions, for example, during order picking or any other warehousing function that requires frequently repeated movements for an extended period of time (such as re-stocking, moving stock around the warehouse). Because of the dynamic and strainful nature of warehouse work, lower back pain is the most common injury in the warehouse environment.

The solution for this is to outfit employees with a flexible exoskeleton that gives them superhuman strength and augments their ability to perform repetitive tasks in awkward postures. Once a science fiction dream, this vision is now a reality.

worker using exoskeletonA modular industrial exoskeleton reduces the muscle force required to complete tasks. Warehouse work is physically demanding, requiring laborers to lift hefty items and perform repetitive tasks. The job can take its toll on both workers and employers, forcing companies to pay out a lot of money every year for injuries caused by overexertion.

 

 

 

Thanks to modern technological advances, exoskeletons have arrived to help minimize the risk of injury and to make worker’s lives easier. There are two different classes of exoskeleton: powered and passive.

A powered exoskeleton (also known as power armor, powered armor, powered suit, exoframe, hardsuit or exosuit) is a wearable mobile machine that is powered by a system of electric motors, pneumatics, levers, hydraulics, or a combination of technologies that allow for limb movement with increased strength and endurance. Its design aims to provide back support, sense the user’s motion, and send a signal to motors which manage the gears. The exoskeleton supports the shoulder, waist, and thigh, and assists movement for lifting and holding heavy items while lowering back stress.

A passive exoskeleton is like an external full-body harness that wraps around the user’s legs torso, and arms. It’s designed to transfer the energy of the wearer’s movement more effectively using carbon-fiber trusses and motors. Workers are able to manipulate heavy objects using a fraction of the typical energy. Put simply, Exoskeletons allow you to carry more without feeling the weight.

No longer just for military use, the exoskeletons of today are lightweight, cheaper to manufacture, easy to wear, and reduce muscle strain significantly.  A preliminary study by exoskeleton provider Laevo, has shown a 40% reduction in the activation of the back muscles while wearing an exoskeleton. The study monitored the activation of the two major lower back muscles (the Erector Spinae Iliocostalis and Erector Spinae Longissimus) using Electromyography (EMG).

For an average warehouse employee that lifts roughly 10,000 pounds per day, that is a savings of 4,000 pounds on their backs. That is a considerable load to be taken off of an employee and will certainly keep them more productive and safe while on the job.

Workers using exoskeletons to lift boxes

Hardware chain Lowe’s, for example, is outfitting their employees with a passive exoskeleton to help them on the job.

It’s intended to help workers offset some of the strain on their muscles and joints, as they spend large portions of their days picking up and moving heavy and awkward items, such as bags of cement, or 5-gallon buckets of paint. Lowe’s exoskeletons are, for now, are just a test to see if they will in fact aid the average worker and relieve some of the more menial and physical aspects of their job.

Lowe’s if confident that technologies like this will help to keep the chain efficient and productive.  Some of the parts for the exo-suits have been custom 3D printed to match the dimensions of each user.

Today there are 53 companies that work on developing exoskeletons, such as Ekso Bionics and Laevo – that offer lightweight designs and easy maintenance suits that greatly improve the performance of each warehouse worker. In conclusion, these exoskeletons will be here to stay and will power the warehouse workers of the future.