Where Are the Exoskeletons?

Mark L. Johnson / May 2019

In February, Morrison Utility Services in the United Kingdom began piloting a health and safety program that supplies exoskeletons to its contract workers.
    
“The benefits of this wearable technology,” said the utility’s executive director, “will include reduced tiredness, a reduction in strain-related injuries and the ability for our people to work for longer periods without any detriment to their well-being.”
    
Incredible. The utility sees exo-suits extending the workday for nothing—other than the cost of the suits.
    
“The use of exoskeletons could also help our sector tackle the ongoing skills shortage,” the executive director added. By supplementing a worker’s stamina, an exo-suit might “[open] up otherwise lost opportunities,” he said.
    
Could exo-suits be the solution to worker shortage we’ve been waiting for?

Strength Amplification
There are many ways to get suited up with power, so to speak, to hang drywall and lift ceiling panels into place. We can use newer, lighter-weight materials. We can use more lifts. We already have protocols to reduce jobsite injuries, but we can review them and improve them. We can build more assemblies in a factory and have boom trucks and cranes do the lifting on site.
    
But, you’ve got to admit, exoskeletons are pretty cool. A basic, upper body exo-suit weighs only a few pounds, yet adds 15 pounds of force to the lift potential of an arm—30 pounds of added strength per worker. Again, that’s a basic model. The suits come in all shapes and sizes.
    
Some exoskeletons relieve strain by making it easier for workers to rest. The Chairless Chair from Noonee, for example, allows workers to sit, stand and walk with mechanical support.
    
The EksoZeoG from Ekso Bionics acts as a third arm. It’s mounted to scaffolding or the railing of a lift bucket. The arm holds materials or tools so the worker can complete tasks with less strain and fatigue.
    
The Guardian XO Ma from Sarcos Robotics is a full-body robotic exoskeleton. It enables a construction worker to lift up to 200 pounds. The suit has a strength amplification of 20 to 1. So, a drywaller can lift two half-inch thick, 4-by-8-foot sheets of gypsum board, and it feels like only 5 pounds to him.
    
You’ve got to love this stuff. Workers could work faster while donning fun alter egos—Iron Man, or Bumblebee the Autobot, or Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in a powered exo-suit battling the Alien queen. They’ll feel full of power and command control. And that’s a good thing as they rock gypsum board runs all day long.
    
Ready to start your own exo-suit pilot program?

Growth Segment?
ABI Research predicted in 2015 that robotic exoskeletons would sell furiously. The category’s sales would balloon, ABI said, from $68 million in 2014 to $1.8 billion by 2025. The commercial uses of exoskeletons would include “heavy lifting, extended standing, squatting, bending or walking,” ABI said. Construction particularly would benefit.
    
So, where are all those exo-suits?
    
A December 2018 Dodge Data & Analytics SmartMarket report found only 13 percent of construction firms had made wearables available to crews. Why so few? Price, for one. The suits can cost $5,000 a pop. But also, there’s a concern that exo-suits are not yet ready for field application.
    
Anyway, isn’t the key to long-term well-being of workers found in better workflows and more safety training? As exciting as exoskeletons seem, the best innovations, in my opinion, work on a systems level at firms. You want to be involved in design processes early. You want to improve schedules, develop lean practices and ramp up safety awareness.
    
Yeah, it would be fun to buy an exo-suit. However, I think you’ll have a greater dollar-for-dollar ROI by investing in a prefab shop, or by paying crews to do their stretches before they work.

Invest in People
Maybe exoskeletons could spare workers some back pain, and that’s a good thing. But beyond that, can we expect the suits to “tackle the ongoing skills shortage”?
    
I don’t see it. But, if you’ve got a few grand to buy an exo-suit, don’t let me stand in the way. I just think your dollars will go further outside the exo-suit realm by investing in processes and in your people.

Mark L. Johnson, an industry writer who loves technology but is practical about its use, can be reached via markjohnsoncommunications.com.