Bionic Construction Workers? Exoskeletons Can Prevent Wear, Tear

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By Elliott T. Dube

Construction workers could experience less wear and tear as contractors increasingly turn to “exoskeleton” technology to ward off injuries and fatigue.

An exoskeleton is a harness-supported metal frame worn outside clothes. Exoskeletons can incorporate pneumatics, hydraulics, and/or levers, with some models powered and some not. They’ve been around for a while and have been used in both medicine and the military.

Certain frames help a worker maintain correct back posture while bending down to lift objects. Mechanical gloves are available for workers with weak grips. Other units lock in place around the leg area and ward off fatigue while a worker stands or crouches in place for an extended period.

Construction workers subject their bodies to abuse all day long, Homayoon Kazerooni, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told Bloomberg BNA. He directs the Berkeley Robotics & Human Engineering Laboratory and is an exoskeleton entrepreneur, having founded Ekso Bionics and U.S. Bionics.

Targeting Costly Injuries

Exoskeletons can make workers more productive, help older workers, and reduce the risk of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), according to a June 15 blog post by the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health.

The Department of Labor defines an MSD as including an injury or disorder of the muscles, nerves, tendons, joints, cartilage, or spinal discs. Construction workers experienced 5,150 incidences of MSDs in 2015, missing a median of 15 work days because of them, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

The 2017 Liberty Mutual Insurance Workplace Safety Index analyzed workplace injuries that caused employees to miss at least six days of work in 2014, the most recent year for which statistically valid injury data was available from the BLS and the National Academy of Social Insurance. The largest percentage of such injuries involved “overexertion involving outside sources” such as lifting, pushing, pulling, and turning, which cost employers $13.79 billion.

Other injury-causing “exertions and bodily reactions,” such as bending, kneeling, and standing, cost employers $3.89 billion, according to the index. Injuries stemming from “repetitive motions involving micro-tasks"—including the use of tools and equipment and grasping, placing, or moving objects—cost the workplace $1.81 billion.

Market Vibrant

The potential for exoskeletons to cut down on workplace injury costs—as well as how they lend themselves to medical rehabilitation, assisted-walking, and military uses—explains why the market is set to explode. The global exoskeleton market, valued at $25.4 million in 2015, is expected to reach $3.3 billion by 2025, according to a September 2016 report by Grand View Research.

The total addressable market, or revenue opportunity, for commercial/industrial exoskeletons currently exceeds 2.6 million units, ABI Research found in April. This figure “dwarfs” the total number of exoskeleton units that shipped in 2016 and the 107,000 units predicted to be the annual production count in 2025, ABI said.

A variety of companies, including some major players, have entered the market. Lockheed Martin’s unpowered FORTIS exoskeleton supports a mechanical arm that can hold and use a tool weighing up to 36 pounds with barely any effort on the human operator’s part. It’s available for $23,320 per unit. The product uses biomechanical principles to transfer the tool’s weight to the arm, through a series of joints, and down to the ground.

Seeking ‘Honda’ of Wearable Technology

Kazerooni said he has moved away from Ekso Bionics to focus on U.S. Bionics. The “thesis” of suitX, a U.S. Bionics trademark, is to provide workers with “wearable technologies to reduce stress at three places.” These are the back, knees, and shoulders, where the highest number of workplace injuries are seen, according to the DOL, Kazerooni said.

Affordability is also important, as companies likely will balk at spending upwards of $30,000 to $40,000 on worker devices with pricey “bells and whistles,” Kazerooni said.

Trying to slash costs presents engineering challenges, he said. “To me, designing a Lamborghini is much easier than a Honda—giving technology to people at low cost and accessible is extremely difficult because you need to provide a good valuation with almost nothing.”

“Once you drop one element, you’re dropping major hardware,” as fewer expensive sensors in an exoskeleton leads to fewer wires and a lowered power requirement, Kazerooni said. At the same time, using fewer components can decrease the likelihood of product failure, he said.

The company is charging $3,000 for a pair of its shoulderX modules for overhead work, $3,000 for its backX module for bending and lifting objects, and $5,000 for a pair of its legX modules for squatting. The three module types can be used independently or combined into the company’s Modular Agile eXoskeleton (MAX) system. Some initial funding for MAX’s development came under the Obama administration’s National Robotics Initiative, Kazerooni said.

Workers Testing Waters Gingerly

“Everybody wants to think in terms of ‘Aliens’ and ‘Iron Man’ and ‘Edge of Tomorrow’” when considering exoskeleton technology, Tom Mastaler, the senior vice president of business development for Ekso Bionics’ industrial division, told Bloomberg BNA. He was referencing three popular films in which human heroes confidently donned bionic full-body powered suits to fight adversaries.

But workers can be nervous about the new technology. “To walk in and strap yourself into a mechanical solution, especially if it’s powered, you start to think what can go wrong,” he said.

Ekso Bionics’ research revealed that workers aren’t quite ready to strap on full-body exoskeletons that might weigh them down and hinder their movement, Mastaler said. Accordingly, the company’s $10,000 EksoZeroG is a mechanical tool-holding arm that is mounted, not worn, and is used for tasks involving grinding, drilling, chipping, and fastening.

In September, the company will put a wearable product into production in the form of the $5,000 upper-body EksoVest, geared to assist a worker with chest-height and overhead tasks, Mastaler said.

“If you take what we’re displacing in the shoulder area and the upper arms and you take it through the spine to the hips, that’s the strongest point in the human body for carrying any kind of weight,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Elliott T. Dube in Washington at edube@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jo-el J. Meyer at jmeyer@bna.com

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