Attending the 2017 Manufacturing and Technology Conference and Expo in Cleveland this past May gave me a firsthand opportunity to wear and try out an exoskeleton suit.
The modern age exoskeleton started with a joint venture by the U.S. Armed Forces and GE back in the 1960s. Their goal was to develop flexible armor for the military to protect soldiers.
From there, the development split into four main areas:
There are many benefits that exoskeletons can bring to your manufacturing company. Many suits are modular, meaning you buy or wear only a certain part, like a back exoskeleton suit.
For example, a warehouse employee can put a partial suit on when he starts work, and the suit will allow him to lift boxes the correct way. This can be accomplished, depending on the suit, by limiting the employee’s bending action, preventing wrong bending, or by distributing the load from the back to the legs and hips, preventing potential injury to the back.
Those suits are built similarly to a full-body fall-arrest harness--slip on and adjust. Many suits weigh less than 3 pounds and are made out of comfortable materials like nylon or Gore-Tex. They are flexible and move with the employee. Some of the back suits can reduce lifted weight by as much as 50%, meaning a 40-pound box feels like a 20-pound box.
There are knee joint protection suits, which can assist employees if they have to perform operations like welding inside large tubes. In many of these operations, the employee has to perform his work in a semi squatting or crouching position for an extended period of time. The knee joint suits take a great deal of load off the wearer’s muscles, making the task less stressful for the employee.
There are also shoulder and arm protection suits. Those exoskeleton suits come in handy if an employee has to reach or hold his arms or shoulders in an awkward or stressful position. The suit transfers the weight, making the position more comfortable and allowing the employee to perform the task without damaging joints or straining muscles.
Exoskeleton suits have come a long way since the idea was first introduced and are now readily available to help protect your employees from potential harm.
Before you go out and buy a suit, make sure you identify the support, protection, or assistance you feel the suit can provide. Look at a variety of models. Ask if you can test some of the suits in your work environment. If you can test suits at your workplace, make sure you have employees who actually perform the task testing the suit. This will provide you with valuable feedback and help confirm whether you are implementing an exoskeleton device in the right area of your business.
The payback of acquiring an exoskeleton suit is not only in efficiency and fewer injuries, but also in improved workplace environment and increased employee retention.