Ford Equips Assembly Workers with Exoskeletons

Wearable upper-body exoskeletons are available to workers to support their arms when performing overhead tasks.

Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit is one small step closer to reality—at least, for some Ford employees. 

Some jobs on the company’s auto assembly lines require workers to be constantly reaching overhead—and a whole day of doing so can really take a toll on their back, neck and shoulders. Relief is on the way for these tired workers: after a successful trial in two factories, Ford is rolling out an exoskeleton to help with those tasks in 15 plants around the world. 

The EksoVest, developed by the automaker in partnership with Ekso Bionics, elevates and supports the arms of workers performing repeated overhead tasks. The vest fits workers from five-feet to six-feet-four-inches tall. It uses spring assistance to provide between five and 15 pounds of lift support per arm. Wearers can still move freely: it is unpowered—it doesn’t need to be tethered or plugged in to a power source—and is fairly lightweight, weighing less than 10 pounds. The EksoVest costs an estimated $6,500. 

The object of the exoskeleton is to reduce fatigue and injury to workers that spend the day reaching overhead with power tools while working on the underside of cars. Some workers perform these actions an estimated 4,600 times a day or one million times a year. According to Jack Peurach, president and CEO of Ekso Bionics, “At Ekso, our mission is to augment human capability with wearable technology and robotics that help people rethink current physical limitations and achieve the remarkable. Advancing our collaboration with a global leader like Ford, represents a major step forward in achieving our mission as our EksoVest is deployed around the world to enhance the well-being of its work force.”

Ford partnered with Ekso Bionics to develop an exoskeleton to help factory workers. 

Ford isn’t the only company looking to wearable exoskeletons to help increase worker performance and reduce risk. Mitsubishi, Lowe’s and Lockheed Martin have all invested in developing similar devices for their workforces. These investments promise not only to help workers avoid injury—but also help their employers’ bottom line. The CDC estimates that fatigue, injuries and musculoskeletal disorders resulting from lifting and handling heavy materials accounts for about 30 percent of lost time on the job by injured or ill workers. 

As wearable exoskeletons gain in popularity in industrial workplaces, the market is expected to grow dramatically—from $2.9 million in 2016 to $1.12 billion in 2021—an average growth of 229% per year. 

It is evident that workers and employers both see a benefit in growing the wearable exoskeleton market. One of the pilot EksoVest operators, Ford employee Nick Gotts, was immediately converted to the benefits of the device saying, “Any job that’s overhead, I wouldn’t work without it.” 

Read more about how robotics technology is helping assembly line workers at VIDEO: Intelligent Lifting Device Simplifies Assembly, Picking and Packing Tasks.