An worker wearing an exoskeleton to ease the workload on the body at an assembly plant. Source: AFP

Do futuristic exoskeletons really have a place in physical industries?

  • Exoskeletons conjure sci-fi imaginings – but will they actually see enterprise uptake? 
  • Industrial application of ‘exosuits’ first appeared in the 1960s
  • With advances in technology, exoskeletons finally seem primed for the big time

Real-world use cases of partial- or full-body exoskeletons have been picking up in the automation sector in recent times, and can be increasingly seen doing the literal ‘heavy lifting’ on more and more manufacturing floors.

There are now estimates that the global exoskeleton market will be worth US$8.3 billion by 2025, but the suits have – thus far – failed to capture the attention of manufacturers as strongly as they have captured the public’s imagination in such sci-fi blockbusters.

Audi ergonomic exoskeletons

Ergonomic exoskeletons being tested at Audi’s Ingolstadt plant. Source: Audi

With staff numbers shortening as companies tighten their expenditures across the business, along with the introduction of remote and automated solutions and robotics, the remaining workforce is under increasing pressure to do more with fewer resources. Could this finally be the time for exoskeleton adoption to hit the mainstream?

What is an exoskeleton?

The term ‘exoskeleton’ actually comes from the tough outer layer of certain spineless animals such as insects and crabs, which are held together despite having no internal skeletal frame.

When it comes to industrial, medical, or military applications, exoskeletons (or ‘exosuits’) are essentially wearable robotic suits or appendages, which can deliver support ranging from propping up the body slightly, like with muscle rehabilitation gear, to fully-powered suits that can lift tremendous weights without exertion on the body.

Like many bold innovations, the first exoskeletons were developed for military use, but it was not long before the first industrial design made its way onto the shop floor in the form of General Electric’s Hardiman exosuit that could augment a user’s strength by a factor of 25.

The full-body exoskeleton came in two parts and weighed a hefty 1,500 pounds at the time, so development was shelved at the time.

In the early 2000s, exosuits were being adapted in the biomedical industry to be smaller and more lightweight to support physical rehabilitation projects, and in the process were being modified with sensors, mobile power units and batteries, and were taking advantage of the superior processing power and speeds of the modern era.

Yet it wasn’t until 2014-2016 that exoskeletons once again began to garner interest in industrial applications. A big reason for the renewed interest was the refurbished design of many exoskeleton units, which were less clunky and now featured partial, agile, or even passive support allowing different units to be applied in different sectors as the demand warranted it.

Ford Motors, for example, has introduced upper-body exoskeletons, dubbed the Ford EksoVest, in 15 Ford plants globally where workers have to perform strenuous repeat motions. The company has seen a radical decline in plant injuries since adopting the Ekso suits, up to 83 percent in some instances.

Audi is testing smaller suits for the other end of the human body, trialing 3 kg exosuits intended to lower the risk of back injury at two of their plants.

Other major brands like Delta Airlines, Caterpillar, and Wurth Industries have all expressed interest in testing exoskeletons for industrial use, while robotic exosuits are seen as potentially industry-changing in sectors with a high human risk factor, such as construction.

Interest in the military, medical, manufacturing, construction, and agriculture sectors are all very promising for firms developing these robotic body enhancements. And this promise might finally see exoskeletons going mainstream in the world of business.