When you think of “exoskeleton,” your mind may jump to images of Iron Man, and really, the imagery isn’t far off at all. But while exoskeletons can provide some level of robotic strength, they don’t provide the users with quite the powers of the popular Marvel hero.
It’s becoming a booming industry, seemingly overnight, particularly when it comes to exosuits worn within the construction industry. Experts predict the robotic exoskeleton market will hit $1.8 billion by 2025, a rise from $68 million in 2014. Last year, 6,000 suits were sold worldwide, mainly for rehabilitation purposes. But by 2025, estimates show there will be about 2.6 million on the market.
A number of companies are making exoskeleton suits for construction and manufacturing use, and Ekso Bionics is one of them.
Quite simply, an exoskeleton suit is a wearable device that works in tandem with the user. The opposite example would be an autonomous robot that works independently of the user. Designed to enhance, amplify or restore human performance, such a suit is worn on the user’s body.
Every exoskeleton suits is different. Some are made from rigid materials such as carbon fiber or metal, while others are made from soft and elastic parts. Suits can either be powered and equipped with electronics and sensors, or they can be mechanical and passive. They may cover the entire body, or just the lower or upper extremities, or a specific body part such as the shoulder, hip or ankle.
Exoskeletons involve the application of robotics and bio-mechatronics designed to augment and assist humans in the performance of tasks.
Exoskeleton suits are manufactured by exoskeleton companies like Ekso Bionics.
The metal frameworks of exosuits are fitted with motorized or mechanical muscles to multiply the user’s strength, basically mirroring the wearer’s internal skeletal structure. Exoskeleton suits make objects feel lighter – even weightless sometimes – which reduces injuries and improves compliance in a variety of industries.
They first came on the scene after being developed for the military, but have since made the shift from military and healthcare into manufacturing. Construction and agriculture industries are also incorporating exoskeletons where workers are known to carry and transfer very heavy loads while moving in a repetitive manner.
It was about 2015 when exosuits finally made their way into mainstream industrial applications. This is when Ekso Bionics announced its expansion into the construction industry and related industries with the Ekso Works Industrial Exoskeleton. The suit empowers the user to lift power tools as if they were weightless.
But Ekso Bionics was around long before that. As pioneers in bionic technology since 2005, Ekso has been at the leading edge of exo technology every step of the way when it comes to creating and improving wearable technology to augment human potential.
Exoskeleton suits are designed primarily to combat fatigue in the workplace, at least in industrial applications such as construction. In 2019, the most common cause for workplace injuries was extreme fatigue and overexertion, with 20 percent of construction workers reporting severe pain. In fact, construction workers are 5x more likely to report poor health.
Exosuits like EVO and EksoZeroG were developed to address these unique challenges. For instance, the next evolution of EksoVest, is a durable, naturally-tracking, and assistive exoskeleton vest. Designed to alleviate the burden of repetitive work, EVO is an endurance-boosting assistive upper body exoskeleton which helps construction and other workers better manage overhead work. It reduces fatigue and shoulder and back muscle strain, as well as reduces work-related injuries to the neck, shoulder, and back.
Workers who wear these and other suits are at a reduced risk of severe injuries from accidents or overwork. Construction workers in particular have the most overexertion injuries, with the highest rates of musculoskeletal disorders per capita, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The types of injuries they sustain reduce the number of years they can do their jobs and many of them even lead to permanent injury.
From arm support limbs to full body suits, the exoskeleton industry is proving to be extremely beneficial to many industries looking to reduce injury and ensure happier, healthier workers.