This Industrial Exoskeleton Helps Workers Carry Their Loads

An experimental new exo-suit is designed to decrease the wear and tear on industrial workers’ bodies.

This Industrial Exoskeleton Helps Workers Carry Their Loads
[Photo: Heidi Darling]

Welders, grinders, and other industrial tools can be very heavy, and they can take a serious physical toll on men and women who use them all day long. A new exoskeleton under development promises to lift away all that weight, allowing workers to do their jobs without suffering.

The new exoskeleton is from Ekso Bionics, a Richmond, California, company that has already established itself as a leader in the medical field and the military. Its innovative suits are designed to transfer weight to the ground, significantly reducing the burden those who wear them must carry.

Dozens of rehab centers around the country are employing the company’s suits to help people who’ve had strokes or spinal injuries learn to walk again, and soldiers use the company’s exoskeletons to help carry much more heavy gear than they could without assistance.

Ekso Bionics SuitPhoto: Ekso Bionics

Now, Ekso Bionics is going after the $9 trillion global construction market, an industry it says contends with $50 billion in annual losses due to back injuries alone. Early next year, according to Russ Angold, the company’s cofounder and CTO, it plans on releasing its industrial exoskeleton. Already, however, it has prototypes that demonstrate the substantial benefit that workers–and the construction industry–could gain.

I recently got a chance to try out the new suit. First, though, I had to try carrying an industrial grinder without any help. Weighing in at more than 20 pounds, it is not something I could use for more than a minute or two without dealing with a lot of pain. Those whose job it is to use such tools on a daily basis are probably able to handle the tool for longer than I could, but I have no doubt that over time, they too would break down, costing their employers a bundle in worker’s compensation claims and lost productivity. The human body simply isn’t built to wield big, heavy machines out in front of our bodies like this.

Photo: Heidi Darling

Angold explained that the new exoskeleton was designed to provide a parallel load path that takes the weight of the tools off of workers’ bodies, all without any motors or power. I can confidently say it’s true. Strapping into the suit, I initially felt a little like Forrest Gump in his leg braces, but once a special arm was attached that the grinder was mounted on, I got a glimpse of how a lot of people’s lives are going to be improved in the future.

Even with the heavy grinder locked into place, I could barely feel its weight. Yet I could move it around easily, into a number of different positions. I could even walk around with it, albeit with a little bit of difficulty. If I’d had to use that grinder for the next half-hour, I think it would have been a piece of cake, and I feel sure my back would have hardly known the difference. As Angold put it, the suit “leaves workers unencumbered and free to move around, and allows them to work longer and more efficiently.”

Ekso Bionics, which is a public company, is betting that a lot of industrial customers will want a piece of this. On the one hand, they want to make their workers’ lives better. On the other, they want to reduce lost work hours and the cost of workers’ comp.

Today, Angold explained, Ekso Bionics is still doing field testing on the new exoskeleton, and doing some long-term studies that it hopes will validate the design. If that proves true, it will shift into production early next year, he said.

The company is hoping that it can partner with large global construction companies, as well as tool makers. Ekso Bionics imagines that it would make different mounts for each of the many tools with which the suit could be compatible: welders, grinders, drills, and others.

For now, the company isn’t saying exactly what the new exoskeletons will cost, although Angold says it’s likely that they will go for more than $10,000 apiece. Ekso Bionics believes that customers who buy them will see a quick return on investment, given how much they are expected to limit the physical toll on workers.

About the author

Daniel Terdiman is a San Francisco-based technology journalist with nearly 20 years of experience. A veteran of CNET and VentureBeat, Daniel has also written for Wired, The New York Times, Time, and many other publications.

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