Remember back belts, those wide, waist-circling lumbar supports that some big box retailers made their workers wear to protect their backs? At times, you’d see one dangling by its straps from a wearer’s shoulders, the belt portion unfastened, circling nothing.
They were marketed as a solution to the problem of back injuries caused at worksites, but they failed to reach widespread use.
Their initial limited rollout isn’t far from the minds of those intent on creating technology that’s truly helpful to workers doing heavy jobs. Mostly, they think about providing wearable robotics that take on some of the body’s muscle work as well as add sensors, electronics, and data-storage technologies to monitor and potentially boost user health.
The manufacturing industry, especially global vehicle producers, is all in on developing and using these new wearables. They protect workers, boost morale, lower fatigue, reduce labor and insurance costs, and extend what some liken to superhero powers.
What, exactly, is a wearable robot?
They have different names — bionic robots, bot-ware, exoskeletons — but they all utilize robotics to enhance human movements and track physical and mechanical data. Ever-improving sensor technology and battery life — along with advancements in cloud speed, AI, microstructures, and hydraulics — boosts safety, efficiency, and output, in addition to prolonging careers and enhancing a worker’s quality of life.
According to researchandmarkets.com, wearable robots and exoskeletons support manual labor tasks at construction sites, on factory floors, and at warehouse and logistical operations, shipping depots, and infrastructure projects. Exoskeletons also improve health care outcomes from surgery or accidents.
For example, Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn set up an extensive beta program to roll out the use of exoskeletons. Based on its success, the company adopted the EksoVest (an exoskeleton that elevates and supports the arms of workers performing repeated overhead tasks) at 15 of its plants. EksoVests reduced workplace injuries by 83 percent during the course of the trial period.
“Industrial exoskeletons are really taking off. That’s a really big marketplace in terms of worker wellness.” — Dr. Tom Sugar
In 2018, LG Corp. launched an exoskeleton, CLOi SuitBot, to help workers take the load off their legs. With its onboard AI tracking system, the bot-ware learns, adapts, and advances a user’s movements. It also continuously improves power efficiency.
In the medical field, wearable robots and exoskeletons are used to assist in personal mobility. They encourage upright walking and relearning of lost functions for stroke patients and people who are paralyzed. Exoskeletons also can deliver high-quality rehabilitation outcomes.
Today’s designers and developers are partnering with the United Automobile Workers, the Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, and other unions, along with scientists, researchers, and biomechanical experts on desired needs and outcomes. By mitigating risks, workers’ comp issues fall.
“This is unique to anything we’ve ever tried before, to put something onto operators,” says Stephen Krajcarski, senior manager of manufacturing ergonomics and human virtual simulation at General Motors Co.’s Warren Technical Center. “There’s no playbook to it.”
GM’s Orion Assembly Plant serves as the automaker’s central testing site, and pilot tests are being conducted at all its assembly plants in the United States and Canada. The technology includes passive exoskeletons; a powered, grip-assist glove; and other systems.
GM is in the first wave of wearable robotics, along with BMW, Boeing, Comau, Ford, a Detroit startup named Guardhat in downtown Detroit, Hyundai, and Toyota, among others.
“Industrial exoskeletons are really taking off,” says Dr. Tom Sugar, director of science and technology for the Wearable Robotics Association and professor of engineering at Arizona State University. “That’s a really big marketplace in terms of worker wellness.”
In what may have been a watershed moment for the use of wearable robotics in manufacturing, in 2018 Toyota designated an upper-body exoskeleton as personal protection equipment for welders at its Woodstock, Ontario, plant. The mandatory exoskeleton policy is similar to the way goggles, steel-toed boots, and ear plugs came to be universally required.
Why now? The use of back belts, failure that it was, may have helped pave the way for other wearables by getting workers doing heavy jobs used to the idea of strapping on something that will help them do their work while relieving or preventing wear and tear on their bodies.
Industry analysts see wearables as a way to get more years out of an older, experienced workforce at a time when there’s a shortage of younger workers coming into the business. That’s important because from 2015 to 2025, “nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs likely will need to be filled and the skills gap is expected to result in 2 million of those jobs going unfilled,” according to a report by the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte.
“Industry is just saying we’re creating devices that allow you to do the job you’ve been doing, but with less fatigue and less effort,” Sugar says. “That can translate into less health problems, pain, and time off work.”
For employees, overexertion while lifting, pushing, turning, holding, carrying, throwing, and making repetitive motions is the top cause of workplace injuries resulting in lost workdays, at 33.5 percent. Manufacturing is the No. 3 industry for injuries that keep workers away from their jobs, according to the National Safety Council.
Worker injuries affect a company’s bottom line, too.
Overexertion from tasks including lifting, pushing, pulling, holding, carrying, or throwing objects costs businesses $13.1 billion in annual direct costs, and accounts for 23.2 percent of the overall national burden, according to the 2019 Liberty Mutual Workplace Injury Index.
Another phenomenon facilitating the modern use of wearable robotics is the proliferation of wearables in society. People today have gotten used to seeing (or being) an augmented human with devices such as Bluetooth earbuds, Fitbits, and Apple watches. This may make it easier to accept the devices in the workplace.
The development of wearables has accelerated among the armed forces, too. Wider development of exoskeletons grew from the military’s desire for technologies to prevent and reduce musculoskeletal injuries in soldiers on patrol, whose gear and equipment can exceed 100 pounds. Started in 2011 and since expanded, the Defense Agency Research Projects Agency’s Warrior Web program sought a lightweight, conformal under-suit that could be worn to protect against chronic or acute injuries.
In the same year Warrior Web started, Ford was experimenting with various technologies to augment its workers’ shoulder muscles. This physically complex area is subject to heavy use in daily tasks and can take a lot to fix when something goes wrong. Seeking to limit the number of shoulder injuries, Ford decided to focus on technology that aided overhead work while a vehicle is being produced on an assembly line. Performing overhead tasks, which involves using a tool such as a right-angle nut runner that can weigh up to 13 pounds, calls on the shoulders and arms to work extremely hard for a sustained period. It’s the kind of job that’s highly correlated with injury.
“Participants reported a substantial decrease in work-related discomfort after three months of regular arm-support exoskeleton use …” — Marty Smets
The company tried spring-loaded technology that could hold the nut runner and essentially render it weightless for the operator using it, but the dangers of zero-G tools floating around amid factory workers put the kibosh on that effort.
Ford trialed various shoulder wearables, but it soon focused on the EksoVest from Ekso Bionics, a California-based robotics company. Ford started a longitudinal study on the EksoVest in all of its plants in North America with Virginia Tech in 2017. This is where the company’s partnership with the union helped.
“The first thing an operator would suspect if we didn’t have a better relationship and apply this in partnership with the UAW would be, ‘What are you going to do, give me more work?’ ” says Marty Smets, a technical expert in human systems and virtual manufacturing at Ford’s Advanced Manufacturing Center in Redford Township. “So, we aligned goals with the UAW and made sure they understood that the exoskeleton is designed to reduce fatigue — and it’s fatigue that leads to injuries.”
During an 18-month trial of the EksoVest, Ford teams fanned out to the factories to do surveys and gather subjective feedback. Last November, experts in biomechanics and mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech started doing the kind of lab tests that can’t be done on a plant floor.
The results of a small field trial are in, and they look encouraging.
“Participants reported a substantial decrease in work-related discomfort after three months of regular arm-support exoskeleton use, with the shoulders, arms, and neck indicated as the areas of greatest improvement,” Smets wrote in results published in March 2019.
Full results from 80 control subjects and 40 EksoVest participants are expected later this year. Ford isn’t alone in its development of a passive exoskeleton to augment the shoulders.
Comau, the Italian industrial automation company owned by FCA that has operations in Novi, Royal Oak, and Southfield, markets a passive exoskeleton that also supplements the shoulder area. “For us, automation doesn’t always equal robots,” says Mark Anderson, head of robotics and automation products at Comau North America in Southfield.
Comau’s MATE, an acronym for Muscular Aiding Tech Exoskeleton, transfers about 30 percent of the muscular burden from the shoulders to the pelvis, and it adjusts to offer seven levels of assistance. Hundreds of the nine-pound, $5,700 devices are in use in Europe and the Asia Pacific region, including at FCA plants, Anderson says.
General Motors’ technology is the Ironhand, initially called the RoboGlove, which differs from the EksoVest and MATE in that it’s powered by a battery and is meant to assist a wearer’s grip. The device’s initial name may be a throwback to the Robonaut, a humanoid robot developed by GM and others. The “hand” part of the robot proved to be highly dexterous and led to Ironhand’s development.
The powered glove enhances a wearer’s hand strength and grip through sensors, actuators, and tendons that are comparable to the nerves, muscles, and tendons in a human hand. The glove and its battery, which is worn in a backpack, weigh 5.5 pounds.
The $9,250 Ironhand was developed in conjunction with Bioservo Technologies, a Swedish soft bionics firm. The device lets the wearer repeat or maintain his or her grip without using as much force by adding up to 10 pounds of grip force. The extra power helps during the repetitive motions of operating a rivet gun or a drill driver. Ironhand can also assist with sustained holding, such as gripping a bundle of wires while assembling a vehicle.
“One operator said, ‘I usually have to take a Motrin at lunch to make it through my shift and today I didn’t have to,’ ” says Dan Flores, GM’s senior communications manager, about the reduced strain on the worker’s body due to Ironhand.
One feature of Ironhand that could complicate its use at GM and elsewhere is the glove’s connection to the Internet of Things. “When you talk about (connected) wearables, there’s sensitivity to tracking and monitoring employees on the plant floor,” Krajcarski says.
But, he adds, the automaker is not tracking a worker’s location with the technology.
Petter Bäckgren, CEO of Bioservo, says the IoT connection allows the company to digitally assess working environments to identify critical tasks where ergonomic risk is high. This allows for countermeasures that can reduce risk and prevent injury.
His talk of risk-reduction and data-collection brings to mind insurance coverage and workers’ compensation. None of the companies developing wearables brought up insurance and reducing costs of premiums and claims, but it’s always a factor for the bottom line.
“The insurance industry generally supports anything that reduces risk, which reduces injuries, which reduces payments,” says Charlie Sidoti, executive director of the nonprofit Innovation Underwriters in Boston, of the chain reaction possible when wearable robotics change how work is performed. “Two things of interest to the industry are if and how they will mitigate the frequency of claims and the severity and cost of the injuries going forward. It’s also skeptical of the extent that these will happen without data.”
Even in business, direction can come from a higher power. That’s what Saikat Dey, co-founder and CEO of Detroit-based Guardhat, says happened to him six years ago when he was CEO of another company, steelmaker Severstal North America.
As the leader of the former Ford steelworks operation in Dearborn now owned by Cleveland-Cliffs Inc., Dey had been searching for technology that offered additional worker safety. If something went wrong, he wanted a tech solution that would facilitate communications and give colleagues critical details such as a worker’s location in real time — like OnStar, but for industry.
“When we started looking for it, we thought, this is something so obvious that somebody must have built something,” Dey says, freely admitting his naiveté. Actually, there was nothing in the marketplace — something wearable, like a connected hard hat that would quickly alert on-site management when a worker was in danger from an accident, a medical emergency, or failure to maintain social distancing prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Then, in a terrible irony, two days before Severstal was sold to a competitor in September 2014, a worker died at the plant. An autopsy later revealed the man suffered a heart attack, but no one knew at first. The worker had a two-way radio on him when he died, but its batteries were dead. “So that was a completely avoidable fatality,” Dey says. “We could have intervened to save a life, but we couldn’t because we didn’t have the right communications structure.”
Since no one else had created communications technology to use in potentially dangerous work settings, Dey decided he would do it. He scrapped plans for another position he had lined up, recruited three of his colleagues from Severstal, along with a friend from middle school, and together they established Guardhat in late 2014.
“I don’t know if you believe in spirituality, but I do,” Dey says. “Sometimes you just get a sign from somewhere, and I thought that was my sign.”
Today, Guardhat develops connected wearables, along with the infrastructure and software platform, to offer greater worksite safety. The company has the financial backing of Dan Gilbert’s Detroit Venture Partners, along with Fortune 100 companies like 3M and Caterpillar, as well as Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Case, co-founder of AOL, and Silicon Valley Bank. Commercialization partners include DuPont Sustainable Solutions, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and Qualcomm Technologies. Guardhat is collaborating with the IBM Watson Internet of Things, too.
Unit sales of its IoT-connected, Made-in-America hard hats are expected to scale up to 10,000 units this year, an increase from less than 1,000 in 2019, Dey says. There are two versions of the hat, differentiated by the addition of a camera in one model. Both monitor battery life, temperature, noise, humidity, and pressure, and can detect falls and enable two-way communication.
The company also offers what it calls the “Atlas personal tag,” whose initial users in the United States are construction workers at the former Hudson’s site in downtown Detroit, located along Woodward Avenue near Guardhat’s offices.
Due to COVID-19, Guardhat recently built a social distancing solution into the tag, which helps workers maintain the recommended 6 feet of distance from others. It continuously detects proximity to other tags and generates audio, haptic, and visual alerts when another tag comes within the recommended distance. The alerts stop when a safe distance is re-established.
In early May, working with Atlanta-based startup FireHUD Inc., Guardhat debuted the FireHUD BioTrac Platform, a real-time monitoring system that tracks the physiology of individuals through an arm-worn device. The device measures biometrics such as heart rate, core body temperature, exertion, distance traveled, and calories burned, to provide a personalized profile for predicting exertion levels.
Dey says Guardhat helps answer three questions: Where is my worker? Can I understand the environment and conditions he or she is in? Can I communicate with them?
The company’s software platform, Kyra, and its human-machine interface support Guardhat, Atlas, and other third-party wearables that are capable of an IoT connection. That means the human grip-augmenting device Ironhand, developed in part by GM, could be connected to Kyra. “As long as it has wireless connectivity, we’ll read it and warn the worker” when there’s a problem, Dey says.
Ultimately, Guardhat wants to be known as the vanguard last-mile connectivity platform that links workers to online safety systems, like the way “Kleenex” is commonly used for tissue and “Xerox” is synonymous with copy machines. “I think we’re making a category of our own,” Dey says.