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Are exoskeletons the future of physical labor?

Ford and others are experimenting with wearable robotics

Photography by Vjeran Pavic

There are 3,500 people working in Ford’s final assembly plant in Wayne, Michigan, where a steady stream of car husks are transformed into drivable vehicles hundreds of times a day. It’s what you might imagine a car factory would be like, if you’ve never been to one before: it’s noisy, with lots of moving parts, Hi-Lo forklifts driving by, and various audible signals playing overhead that are programmed to grab the attention of workers.

Paul Collins sticks out along the final assembly line because of the vest he’s wearing. Since May of this year, Collins — who goes by “Woody” and has worked in the plant since 1995 — has been beta-testing an exoskeleton vest. He’s one of four workers in the Michigan area who have been wearing the vests, which were paid for by the United Automobile Workers union, in an attempt to reduce shoulder injury.

Exoskeletons are not new technology; journals and research papers point to the development of exoskeleton’s back in the 1960s, mostly for military purposes. In Japan, companies like Panasonic, Honda, and Cyberdyne have marketed exoskeletons as a way to help ease the burdens of a shrinking and aging population. And exosuits have certainly lived a life of their own in pop culture and science fiction. (Insert obligatory Tony Stark reference here.)

But when major companies like Ford, Siemens, and Lowe’s start to take interest in exosuits, it raises the question as to whether they’re becoming less of a concept and more of a reality.

So for the season finale of Next Level season 2, we evaluated a variety of different exoskeleton solutions, including the one Ford is testing, to try to understand what it is that’s suddenly making wearable robotics more viable — and also, to learn about the challenges that still exist around these powered suits.

Ford assembly line worker Paul Collins wears an Ekso vest.
Ford assembly line worker Paul Collins wears an Ekso vest.

The vest that Paul Collins has been wearing at Ford is made by Ekso Bionics, a Richmond, California-based company. It’s an electronic-free contraption, and the soft part that hugs his chest looks like the front of a backpack. But the back of it has a metal rod for a spine, and a small, curved pillow rests behind his neck. Extending from the spine are spring-loaded arm mechanics, ones that help Collins lift his arms to install carbon cans on Ford C-Max cars, and rubber grommets on Ford Focuses — about 70 cars an hour.

It took Collins a few weeks to get used to wearing the vest, which he likened to wearing “a new pair of boots.” But after a few weeks, he was sold.

“If they try to take it away, they’d probably have a fight on their hands now,” Collins told me. “My energy level is so much higher when I go home after wearing the vest all day.”

I later tried on the Ekso vest in one of Ford’s labs in Dearborn, a 25-minute drive from the final assembly plant. The lab is run by Marty Smets, an ergonomics expert who works on human systems and virtual manufacturing at Ford. One of his tasks is to use sensors to chart out workers’ strength and physical capabilities, then forecast how productive the workforce will be in a few years when a new product needs assembling.

“If you look at the body parts that are still getting injured, it’s predominantly the shoulder. That’s our number one joint for injury.”

Smets told me that since 2011, Ford has been working, in some capacity, on wearable robotics solutions. But rather than trying to develop something that would give workers superhuman strength, the idea is to prevent injury. “In 2016, our injury statistics were the lowest we’ve seen on record. We’ve had an 83 percent decrease in some of these metrics over the past five years, which is all great,” Smets said. “But if you look at the body parts that are still getting injured, it’s predominantly the shoulder. That’s our number one joint for injury. It’s also the longest to return to full functionality, and the most costly.”

The Ekso vest I tried costs around $6,500 and weighs nine pounds. Smets handed me a power tool, flipped a physical switch on the arm of the vest, and told me to raise my arms over my head as though I was on an assembly line. At some point during my movement, the exosuit kicked into action, its spring mechanism lifting my arms the rest of the way. I could leave my arms in place above my head, too, fully supported. My fingers started to tingle after awhile in that position.

I was surprised by how light the vest felt; but then again, I was carrying all the weight above my waist. I mentioned this to Smets.

“Right now we’re just using upper body supports, but we do have interest in other systems,” Smets said. “Our goal right now is to just figure out how to integrate exoskeletons in our plants. Once we get them into our plants we can begin to replicate and figure out what the sweet spots are for application.”

Other industrial exoskeletons offer lower-body support, but the one I tried felt a lot more cumbersome than the exovest. SuitX is another California-based company that has been working on modular exoskeleton solutions. (SuitX’s founder, Dr. Homayoon Kazerooni, previously founded Ekso Bionics, but was driven out. He later started SuitX, in 2012, with cohorts from his robotics lab at UC Berkeley. SuitX, he claims, makes “much better products.”)

Unlike the vest, the lower-body suit I tried had electronic components in it. But Yoon Jeong, another SuitX co-founder, told me they’re minimal, and that they’re only there to trigger the mechanism, not run the mechanism. The lower-body exoskeleton also required a lot more adjustment than the vest did when I first put it on.

As I squatted to pick up a 25-pound box on the floor of SuitX’s warehouse in Emeryville, the bionic legs shot me back to a standing position, no effort required.

“I would call it robots helping humans work rather than humans doing robots’ work.”

Not surprisingly, bionic legs don’t come cheap: SuitX’s lower-body suit costs $6,000, whereas their upper-body suits cost $4,000 a piece. Aside from the very obvious challenge of designing wearable suits that are lightweight and unobtrusive, the economics of exoskeletons might just be the most challenging aspect of bringing them to the mainstream.

Case in point: SuitX also makes a motorized, medical exoskeleton suit called the Phoenix. When I was at SuitX last month, I saw a paralyzed man walk — albeit slowly — while wearing the Phoenix suit. Jim Burnett was in a motorcycle accident 14 years ago and suffered a serious spinal cord injury. Almost all of his time is now spent in a wheelchair, with the exception of his once-a-week visit to SuitX, where he has agreed to participate in a clinical trial.

Jim Burnett was paralyzed 14 years ago in a motorcycle accident. He now walks for exercise on occasion, thanks to SuitX’s motorized exoskeleton.
Jim Burnett was paralyzed 14 years ago in a motorcycle accident. He now walks for exercise on occasion, thanks to SuitX’s motorized exoskeleton.

“I feel empowered by it,” Burnett told me. “It’s nice to be able to stand up and look people eye to eye. So, speak just like I used to. It’s different [from] sitting down all the time, because that’s what I’ve been doing for years since my injury.”

But the Phoenix suit costs tens of thousands of dollars. The company plans to sell it as a medical device, but it’s not yet FDA approved.

So SuitX had to start selling industrial suits. Dr. Kazerooni, SuitX’s co-founder and chief executive, says the company has sold around 300 suits so far.

“While we are doing our clinical study, we are selling our industrial devices to a variety of places, so some revenue will come in,” Kazerooni said. “It’s not large enough yet to make us completely independent, so we’re still fundraising to continue our operation.”

“From an industrial and a medical point of view, it is actually very difficult to bring any product to market, not just an exo,” said Rich Mahoney. His Silicon Valley-based company Seismic, formerly known as SuperFlex, is looking to make an entrance into the direct-to-consumer market for powered clothing. Their products aren’t exoskeleton suits in the traditional sense; instead, early prototypes look more like gym clothes, with motors and sensors built in.

In industrial and medical applications, Mahoney said, there there’s usually “a very narrow need that’s being met, and then that need has all kinds of business dynamics around it in terms of cost structure. There hasn’t really been a form of an exo at a price point and a use case that makes sense for consumer applications.”

In the meantime, SuitX says it has plans to build smarter, more connected exoskeleton suits, including ones aimed at the elderly market and others targeted at athletes who want to improve oxygen consumption and run longer distances without getting tired.

“We have a whole product map,” Kazerooni said. “Just like your cellphone five or 10 years ago was different from the cellphones you have now, as you go along, these things will get added to that.”