Wearable Robots: Exoskeletons Coming to a Workplace Near You
Jeffrey Heimgartner posted on January 25, 2019 |
Market research indicates high demand for exoskeletons in industrial and rehabilitation use.

Science fiction continues to become more and more like science fact. In June 2017, it was projected that the use of exoskeletons—mechanical devices or soft worn materials that mimic the wearer’s limbs, joints and muscles, and amplify or assist human capabilities—was on the horizon. Less than two years later, a recent study seems to indicate that the future is now.

According to the report, the global wearable robotic exoskeleton market accounted for $127.4 million in 2017 and is expected to grow 43.48 percent during the next nine years. These numbers stem from four industries: health care, industrial, commerce and defense. The smallest growth was in health care, where exoskeletons have the potential to dramatically benefit the areas of rehabilitation and geriatric support.

While the wearable technology is slowly on the rise in the health care sector, the industrial side has seen significant growth the past three years. Since many industrial processes are too complex to currently automate, and are also too risky or demanding, exoskeleton technology works to bridge that gap. Companies benefit from the human experience of their operators, while operators are able to complete tasks utilizing the strength of a robot.

The Lockheed Martin Fortis, which has undergone numerous redesigns, is a passive exoskeleton that increases strength and provides stability using human-guided flexion and locking mechanisms. It is ergonomically designed to move naturally with the body and adapts to different body types and heights. (Image courtesy of Lockheed Martin.)
The Lockheed Martin Fortis, which has undergone numerous redesigns, is a passive exoskeleton that increases strength and provides stability using human-guided flexion and locking mechanisms. It is ergonomically designed to move naturally with the body and adapts to different body types and heights. (Image courtesy of Lockheed Martin.)

Companies like Ford completed a trial using exoskeletons. Based on its success, the company rolled out the EksoVest at 15 of its plants.

The EksoVest is a lightweight, upper body exoskeleton that elevates and supports a worker’s arms to assist them with tasks ranging from chest height to overhead. (Image courtesy of Ekso Bionics.)
The EksoVest is a lightweight, upper body exoskeleton that elevates and supports a worker’s arms to assist them with tasks ranging from chest height to overhead. (Image courtesy of Ekso Bionics.)

Even within industrial applications, different types of wearable robotics are emerging. They are classified by application, limb type and material type—hard or soft. Currently, many companies have acquired a larger share of hard exoskeletons. but the study indicates that soft exoskeletons are in a position to grow at the highest rate. This is in part due to the fact that rigid devices have the potential to result in fatigue due to their weight and the unnatural movement needed to use them. The surging amount of soft exoskeleton launches seems to validate this forecast. SuitX launched its MAX system, which is a versatile flexible exoskeleton.

The MAX system can be adapted for various tasks. It is designed to allow workers to complete shoulder, lower back and leg intensive tasks with reduced injury risk while remaining comfortable. (Image courtesy of SuitX.)
The MAX system can be adapted for various tasks. It is designed to allow workers to complete shoulder, lower back and leg intensive tasks with reduced injury risk while remaining comfortable. (Image courtesy of SuitX.) 

The next generation of industrial exoskeletons seem to be focused on integrating new technology like innovative power solutions and machine learning for more personalization. While these products are still in development, the benefits of this existing technology are making their mark. Based on the numbers, from a business perspective, the development of equipment that can increase productivity and reduce work injury seems to be highly desirable.

Interested in more advances in exoskeleton technology? Check out Soft Exosuit Helps Soldiers and Rescue Workers Traverse Difficult Terrain and Comau Launches MATE, a Non-Robotic, Spring-Based Wearable Exoskeleton, at Automatica 2018.


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