Think exoskeletons, and images of armoured suits worn by RoboCop or Iron Man may spring to mind. A more apt comparator is the humble e-bike. Exoskeletons are designed to enhance strength and stamina, not encase their wearer in heavy metal.
Initially developed for spinal injuries, robotic exoskeletons have industrial applications in jobs that require repetitive movement or heavy lifting. Reducing injuries would improve productivity in sectors that rely on manual labour.
Do not expect superhuman strength or speed, however. These devices lighten the load of physical work by attaching to the body using motors and sensors that can support the upper body, waist and legs, enabling limbs to perform tasks that would otherwise strain muscles.
Lost time from injury at work adds up. Just supporting worker backs would help. Financial and healthcare costs from injury exceed £5bn annually in the UK. Back issues made up nearly 40 per cent of musculoskeletal problems in 2020-21, says the Health and Safety Executive. For Americans, back injuries make up a fifth of workplace ailments, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
More strength and less injury time make the devices useful but costs have hindered uptake. Based near San Francisco, Ekso Bionics manufactures medical and workplace exoskeletons. Full medical exoskeletons can run to $100,000. Ekso also offers smaller units that provide power to limbs and the back for construction or heavy-duty equipment installation above head height.
Military use is another possibility. So far, however, the prototypes available from contractors such as Lockheed Martin look cumbersome.
Industrial use such as general assembly lines offers the biggest market for exosuits, particularly in rapidly ageing workforces such as Germany’s. Porsche has provided its line workers with €5,000 mechanical boosters, worn as backpacks, while they manufacture sporty four wheel drive Macans at the Leipzig factory.
More commercial demand should lift wearable exoskeleton volumes, bringing costs down. This change in affordability will go on to benefit the spinal cord injury victims who spawned the technology in the first place.
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