New industries and applications for exoskeletons: the challenges and possibilities
by Marc Verbenkov & Amy McCready
The exoskeleton industry took its first real steps with a 1960’s General Electric powered suit, “Hardiman”, that increased a user’s strength by a factor of 25. The full body powered suit supported several physical actions of the user which required lifting and moving heavy loads. However, the technology was plagued with several issues such as being too expensive, heavy, rigid, and constrained in movement thus limiting the viability of market adoption. With further advances and modifications in processing speeds, batteries, sensors and materials, powered exoskeleton suits were made smaller and cheaper enabling the beginning of applications in other areas. Yet, by 2012 the technology’s primary use was restricted to medical rehabilitation where the costs for a €200,000 walking skeleton were justified.
PARTIAL, PASSIVE OR AGILE SUPPORT BY EXOSKELETONS
Fast forward 6 years and exoskeletons have undergone further technological modification and improvement. Rather than the expensive clunky full bodied powered suit of yesterday, exoskeletons now can offer partial, passive, or agile support with a decreased price tag. Though applications in both military and medical cases still dominate, new industries are starting to see the viability of exoskeletons. For instance, within manufacturing, Ford Motors has incorporated upper exoskeletons for workers performing repetitive motions in 15 plants worldwide, whereas Audi is testing small 3kg exoskeletons to reduce back injuries in two of their plants. In the case of Ford, since the adoption of their first exoskeletons, they have experienced a clear decline in the number of injuries, “up to 83% in some of the metrics”.
Other big names such as Delta Air Lines, Caterpillar, and Würth Industry have also raised their interest for industrial applications of exoskeletons, though there is not yet a substantial adoption of the technology. Future market assessment places the robotic exoskeleton market alone will reach $1.8 billion in 2025, up from $68 million in 2014. It is expected that the construction, manufacturing, demolition and logistics industries, although just a sliver of the market today, will represent almost half of the industry revenue within eight years.
However, this expansion is not free of important challenges. Power-hungry exoskeletons are plugged into external power sources, which limits both range and movement. The creation of a compact power supply powerful enough to allow an exoskeleton to operate for extended periods of time is still required. Other challenges which have held back the increased adoption of exoskeletons include discomfort, weight, alignment with human anatomy, and reduced task efficiency due to irregular movement.
DECREASING THE NUMBER OF MUSCULOSKELETAL INJURIES
Once these challenges are solved, exoskeleton uptake and proper use would be a valuable contribution to the European workforce in particular. As many as 44 million workers in the European Union (EU) are affected by workplace-related musculoskeletal disorders, representing a total annual cost to industry of more than $300 billion. Exoskeletons have the capacity to decrease the number of musculoskeletal injuries and increase the quality of life at work, thereby reducing costs for a company in the long run.
For this reason, Bax & Company is leveraging its experience in smart industry and has launched EXSKALLERATE, a new initiative within the exoskeleton sphere. We aim to support increasing the adoption of exoskeletons in the North Sea Region of Europe within the manufacturing and construction industries. Additionally, the project will identify best practices in which improvements can be developed for the next generation. To find out more, get in touch!