Suit Up: Wearable robotics assists workers and reduce injury

Panasonic
photo credit: Panasonic

Robotics are improving productivity in many industries. Electrical contractors can benefit as a new genre of robotics emerges. Exoskeletons are wearable robotics that assist workers in performing tasks by providing mechanical motion to the worker through a wearable suit.

Recently, the Wall Street Journal wrote about Toyota Motor North America’s use of exoskeletons and wearable robots at its Woodstock, Ontario, facility. The job of inspecting metallic frames required seated workers to wave an ultrasonic wand over the metal. When the vehicle design changed, a lighter, stronger frame passed through the production line every 60 seconds. This meant that there was more reaching and waving, leading to a greater stress on workers’ shoulder muscles and joints. With an increase in repetitive physical motion, the accumulated stress on workers’ bodies could feasibly lead to injuries, not to mention a downturn in worker productivity. The plant sought exoskeletons to aid the operation to avoid common injuries such as musculoskeletal irritation from chronic repetitive motion.

Reduce industrial workplace Injury

Worker-related musculoskeletal disorders are some of the most common risks for all types of construction workers, according to Louisiana State University’s Intelligent Construction Management Lab, directed by assistant professor Chao Wang. The musculoskeletal system includes muscles, tendons, nerves, bones and ligaments. A number of factors stress workers’ bodies: varying postures, vibrations and positions they must contort to while performing work.

Now, using advances in wearable robotic technology and the availability of new exoskeleton suits, some physical stress maybe alleviated by mechanically assisting the worker.

According to ABI Research, Oyster Bay, N.Y., wearable exoskeletons are a viable solution to augment workers’ performance of motion, but they aren’t necessarily a new idea. The technology’s concept dates back to the 1960s. In recent years, it has been revitalized and developed in an effort to reduce workplace injury and improve performance. It had been focused more on applications in the military and medical fields; however, there’s a very suitable application for its use in a manufacturing environment with an expectation that it can assist workers and upend the safety records of injuries that could be avoided.

Active and passive exoskeletons

There are two categories of exoskeletons: passive and active. As ABI Research describes it, passive suits are fully mechanical, without motors, and they are intended to distribute weight for the wearers and ultimately improve ergonomics. Today, exoskeleton suits can be found in industries such as automotive, aerospace, logistics and construction.

Active exoskeletons use motors for actuation and provide significant lift assistance to workers. As their application and usage takes hold, we can expect to see more exoskeleton suits more widely deployed.

At the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, Panasonic’s power-assist suits will be showcased by Olympic staffers. Panasonic intends to demonstrate precisely how exoskeletons can be useful for a growing, aging population in which performance and capability may be a challenge. According to Panasonic, the suits improve worker performance by as much as 20 percent.

For the electrical contractor, exoskeletons provide many opportunities. As these suits become more available and affordable, their use would be helpful on job sites that require bending, different posture contortions and repetitive motions and vibrations.

As our population ages and the average age of physical workers increases, it is wise to keep a watchful eye on how exoskeleton suits and wearable robotics are being used. If they are available, they can be helpful in increasing productivity while reducing workplace injury.

Stay tuned and observe how automotive manufacturing workers at the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics and other industries use them. In time, we can expect exoskeletons to enhance performance in the very diverse environments where ECs work.

About the Author

Jim Romeo

Freelance Writer

Jim Romeo is a freelance writer based in Chesapeake, Va. He focuses on business and technology topics. Find him at www.JimRomeo.net.

Stay Informed Join our Newsletter

Having trouble finding time to sit down with the latest issue of
ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR? Don't worry, we'll come to you.