Last week I donned an exoskeleton and became a cyborg. But the suit didn’t give me superhuman strength. It was a more subtle effect: I could feel just a little bit of help whenever I lifted up my arms overhead, like having a spotter at the gym. And while that extra five pounds or so of help wasn’t much, it was more than enough for the $6,000 gadget to pay for itself, according to Marty Smets, Ford’s head of manufacturing ergonomics. The economics are simple: $6,000 isn’t nearly as much as it might cost to repair the human wearing the suit.
“The body part that gets injured most in factories is the shoulder,” explained Smets. Just imagine lifting your arms to drill a screw into the underbody of a chassis. Now imagine doing that 4,600 times a day—a million times a year. Even if the motion isn’t tiring, that little bit of fatigue can’t help but wear ever so slightly on the shoulder joint, which is shrouded by small, easily torn muscles and ligaments. And if a worker’s joint does blow out, it’ll require tens of thousands of dollars in surgery and rehabilitation. The process can take a year. So if you can make it just a smidge easier on the shoulder, you make a muscle tear far less likely. The $6,000 for the suit then pays for itself, many times over.
In the past few years, ergonomics has become just as computer-intensive as designing cars. Smets designs the factory line itself, and the job starts in virtual space. Using 3D visualization software, Smets plans out the placement of every part along an assembly line; then he fills that 3D model with virtual humans performing the work. If one of them is reaching too far or straining past a carefully calculated range of effort, the line is tweaked until everything is in the perfect place.
Such tools have allowed Ford to cut ergonomic issues in new assembly lines by 90%. But even still, in car factories, it’s hard to avoid doing work above your head—say, bolting parts onto the undercarriage of a car chassis. Even if you turned the car upside down, so that the underside were face up, you’d still be asking the worker to stretch himself; moreover, you can’t exactly turn the car over farther down the line, when the car is loaded up with oil and brake fluid.
So in 2011 Smets started looking to create an exoskeleton that would make it easier for workers to reach overhead, all day long. “We tried to create our own,” Smets says. “But we didn’t do it well.” He declines to say exactly what didn’t go well. But later, he does explain that exoskeletons can be a tough sell for unionized workers. It’s easy for them to think that a new wearable gadget means they’re being asked to work more or do more with less. And so Ford changed its approach. Instead of developing its own suit, it asked the workers to help an outside contractor, Ekso Bionics, to develop a suit that worked for them.
The process began in 2015. Workers were involved in testing and designing several generations of prototypes, until they were finally deemed good enough to wear every day. The EksoVest that I tried on was among the first production models, which have been in pilot use for the past four months and were funded by the United Auto Workers. They’re deceptively simple in their design: You slip one on and strap in, much like you would with a hiking backpack. The exoskeleton itself moves in concert with your shoulders; its joints are powered by a compressed spring that can be screwed in, and comes in varying strengths to suit different wearers. (Stronger wearers get heavier springs, to provide a similar percentage of assistance.) The springs kick in gradually, reaching maximum support when your arms are held out in front of you—the point at which your shoulder is stressed the most.
The EksoVest represents a new type of application for Ekso Bionics. Up until now, the products have been focused on providing superhuman strength for various military applications, or, for paraplegics, the ability to stand and walk on their own power. By contrast, the EksoVest is aimed squarely at factories, where, by law, workers shouldn’t be asked to perform superhuman feats, but still might be faced with injuries caused by repetitive stress. That market could be vast. “The breadth of applications is wider than I could describe,” says Zach Haas, the Ekso product manager who worked to develop the EksoVest with Ford. These might include other factories, but also entire other industries, such as construction. The next step for Ekso is to develop an entirely new suit for picking and placing—that is, something that could be used by anyone from an airport baggage handler to an Amazon warehouse worker to move things from A to B in the places where the task is simply too complex for any robot. Granted, robots will get better. But the hope is to make humans a lot healthier and happier in the meantime.