Source: New Equipment Digest
Three ways exoskeletons will transform plant manufacturing.
Automation is a powerful tool, increasing productivity in manufacturing scenarios with high-volume, repetitive tasks, and handling materials with predetermined sizes, weight, and geometries. These automated lines are carefully designed and optimized for high throughput of items with set parameters.
However, manufacturing environments with a high mix of size and weight products can be challenging for traditional automation approaches. Adapting fixed processes to high-mix material handling is challenging and typically requires a redesign of the assembly process leaving tools and workers idle—which is an expensive proposition.
Besides, not everything can be automated. Manual material handling during assembly, as well as shipping/receiving and kitting, are often unavoidable for any manufacturing process.
Cranes, manipulator arms, trucks, and other lift-assists are often used to support these manual processes but have limitations in some scenarios. Mobile machines can be large and cumbersome and can’t always go where they are needed. Fixed assists are time-consuming and costly to move between work cells.
However, a new, emerging tool can provide the flexibility manufacturers need to fill these gaps: powered full-body exoskeletons. These exoskeletons help workers lift hundreds of pounds without strain, easily maneuver throughout a facility, and support a wide range of tasks. In a sense, powered exoskeletons are a type of wearable lift-assist, supporting manual material handling in places automation, and fixed assists simply cannot go.
How Powered Full-body Exoskeletons Work
Full-body powered exoskeletons are designed to amplify a human operator’s strength and endurance without adding strain, like the Guardian XO exoskeleton from Sarcos Robotics.
These full-body robots transfer their weight, and the weight of the object being carried, through the suit and directly to the ground—reducing the impact to the wearer. For additional operational safety, the Guardian XO robot enables the user to sense a small percentage of the payload’s weight (for contextual awareness) but at a much lower level. As an example, 200 lb. feels like ten.
Powered exoskeletons enable a great range of motion—operators can walk, lift, push/pull, and bend. The robot’s advanced control system, and more than a hundred embedded sensors, rapidly measure operator movements and respond in kind, making the robot feel like an extension of the user’s body. Workers simply do their jobs while the robot simultaneously augments their strength and moves with them fluidly. And because powered exoskeletons move in tandem with their operators, they can readily support tasks that require complex motions.
Additionally, for many manual assembly tasks, two or more workers must collaborate on a single process—one holding a component in place while the other handles the install. A powered full-body exoskeleton, like the Guardian XO, enables one worker to do the same job alone. With the hands-free feature, the operator can lift the component and lock the robot’s arms to hold the object in place. From there, they can release from the robotic arm to complete more dexterous tasks by hand, such as securing a rivet or other fastener.
Powered Exoskeletons Go Where Fixed Automation Can’t
From a manufacturing standpoint, the most crucial advantages of powered full-body exoskeletons may be their mobility and versatility. Such features enable them to go where needed and make them a powerful tool to allow agile manufacturing and continuity of work—ultimately increasing productivity and safety.
While automation is a vital feature on any high production line, manual material handling, such as receiving materials and kitting components for shipment, is commonplace.
In both scenarios, workers must often handle bulky, heavy objects. Many parts have odd geometries, making them difficult, time-consuming, and sometimes dangerous to maneuver by hand. Powered exoskeletons can help workers package and unpackage materials, sequence them, and move them to the appropriate assembly stations as they are needed.
In the final stage, large, heavy, and bulky finished assemblies, such as the pieces that make up a drill bit for oil and gas drilling, must be manually kitted for shipment. These assemblies can have multiple parts, many of which are heavy steel and difficult to lift. Powered full-body exoskeletons can simplify this cumbersome process, both at the factory and out in the field, where the parts must be unpacked and assembled.
The added strength that powered exoskeletons provide means one person can lift a heavy part that might otherwise require two or more workers. Minimizing these team-lifts can reduce injury, help maintain social distancing, and enhance productivity.
Increased Productivity and Safety
In an agile manufacturing environment, where workers must handle items with different weights, sizes, and shapes, robotic assistance can speed up production. Supported by full-body, powered exoskeletons, both assembly line and logistics workers can lift heavier objects with less fatigue, allowing them to work faster and for more extended periods, acting as productivity multipliers. These robots can also be dynamically deployed to help manage demand surges, alleviating the need to modify fixed lift-assists, a complicated and expensive process. Exoskeletons can also have a profound impact on safety. Many workplace injuries are caused by lifting: carrying too much weight for too long, making awkward lifts, or using poor form. U.S. workers and companies spend more than $100 billion each year to remedy back issues from on-the-job injuries. Lower back pain is second only to the common cold among physical conditions that keep people away from work.
Shoulder injuries from handling heavy high-torque tools during assembly, pushing and pulling heavy loads, and other tasks are also serious concerns and even more expensive to treat per case than back issues. Powered full-body exoskeletons can reduce these numbers. Because they provide vital assistance when workers are lifting and positioning bulky parts, pushing/pulling carts for sequencing, unloading parts, or operating high-torque tools, they can help prevent injuries. Also, for workers who must perform heavy lifting tasks for many hours, powered exoskeletons reduce fatigue, one of the many factors that can heighten injury risks. According to OSHA, fatigue alone costs manufacturers $135 billion from lost production2.
In addition to reducing the lost time from injuries, powered exoskeletons can also mitigate skilled worker shortages. These tools can keep older workers on the job longer, retaining their knowledge and experience. Also, the ability to augment the worker’s physical strength helps level the playing field and opens the job pool to more people.
Flexibility Enhances Productivity
Powered full-body exoskeletons can be utilized across various situations: manual packaging and unpackaging, moving heavy materials to the appropriate workstations, or even handling a task that’s difficult to automate. This flexibility brings more versatility to manufacturing and is an ideal tool to support agile manufacturing.
This flexibility is ultimately the most significant benefit to a powered full-body exoskeleton. It’s not designed to do any one specific job. Instead, like the person operating it, it can perform many different tasks, easing the burden of manual material handling and helping manufacturers respond rapidly to customer needs.
1Source: Spine Research Institute & OSHA, 2014. https://spine.osu.edu/blog/2014/08/addressing-high-corporate-costs-back-pain-and-other-msds
2Source: 2007 OSHA