Becoming Ironman
/ Author: CLAC Staff
/ Categories: Guide magazine /
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Becoming Ironman

The use of exoskeletons in the workplace is moving from science fiction to reality. And while these exoskeletons won’t help you fly, they may reduce the risk of repetitive strain injuries and musculoskeletal injuries—the most common type of workplace injury.

While ergonomics may reduce some injury risks, it’s not possible to eliminate all of them. That’s why some employers, including Ford Motor Company, have started experimenting with exoskeletons.

After conducting various lab experiments, Ford equipped some workers in its Michigan plants with spring-powered exoskeleton arms that provide assistance of 5 to 15 pounds per arm. These workers were involved in overhead work. Within six months, those with the aids reported lower discomfort in the upper back, wrist, neck, and shoulder than those without the aids. The technology, known as the EksoVest, is now being rolled out in all Ford plants around the world.

Some exoskeletons are powered by a motor and classified as active. Others, like those at Ford, are passive and rely on springs to augment the wearers’ motions. Nonpowered exoskeletons are lightweight and more maneuverable, while powered ones help workers lift heavier loads. But the motors are currently too heavy to use them in fields that require a lot of moving around.

While research and tests are promising, the devices have several drawbacks. Along with lack of maneuverability, they can be uncomfortable and hot to wear, and it may be difficult to make one that fits all body types.

And they’re not cheap. The arm-assist used by Ford at its Oakville, Ontario, plant costs $4,000-$7,000. But lost-time injuries cost much more in terms of lost productivity and workers compensation claims, so companies will end up ahead.

According to Marty Swets, a technology expert at Ford’s Oakville plant, in the space of a decade, we will likely see exoskeletons become a part of many workplaces, and the kinks will be worked out. “These are all new devices,” he says. “All these little challenges are just a result of the fact that we are in the first and second generation of the devices. They’ve just come to market in the past three to four years and they’re only going to get better.”


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