If you’ve watched the Iron Man film franchise, you’ll know that a powered suit gives inventor Tony Stark superhuman strength to fight the bad guys.
But away from the the fictional world of blockbusting movies, robotic exoskeletons offer more prosaic and useful help for humans.
The military has been in on the act for years, using them to help soldiers carry more weight for longer periods of time. Meanwhile manufacturers have been busy creating robotic suits to give mobility to people with disabilities.
But now exoskeletons are becoming an important part of the scene in more conventional workplaces, mainly because of their unique offering.
“Exoskeletons act as a bridge between fully-manual labour and robotic systems. You get the brains of people in the body of a robot,” says Dan Kara, research director at ABI Research.
“But there’s more to it than that. You can tie the use of exoskeletons to business benefits that are very easy to quantify. The main one is a reduction in work-related injuries, and we know that outside the common cold, back injury is the main reason people are off work.”
The motor industry has used robots for many years. But robots can’t do everything, points out technical expert Marty Smets, of Ford’s human systems and virtual manufacturing unit.
“In our plants, we see a need for both people and robots,” he says.
Some Ford assembly line workers lift their arms up to 4,600 times a day – that’s about a million times a year. That sort of repetition leaves many suffering from back-ache and neck pain.
Now, though, the company has equipped staff at two US assembly plants with a device called the EksoVest, from California-based Ekso Bionics. It helps take the strain by giving workers an extra 5-15lb (2.2-6.8kg) of lift per arm.
“Incredible is the only word to describe the vest,” said Paul Collins, an assembly line worker at Ford Michigan assembly plant. “It has made my job significantly easier and has given me more energy throughout the day.”
The company says it’s already seeing a dramatic decline in work-related injuries and is now planning to introduce the exoskeletons at facilities in Europe and South America.
Currently, the industrial use of exoskeletons is relatively small – this year only a few thousand have been sold, says ABI’s Kara. But, he says, the potential market could be in the millions.
The types of exoskeleton used for rehabilitation can cost more than $100,000 (£75,000), needing, as they usually do, to replace a user’s muscles altogether. However, industrial versions can be far cheaper, at around $5,000.
They generally augment human strength rather than replace it and tend to enhance one part of the body only. They also often don’t need any external power. Instead, they can deliver a 10-20% boost to the user’s lifting power by transferring weight to the ground.
In Japan, exoskeletons are being used for heavy lifting in the shipbuilding industry as well as in large commercial construction projects.
Meanwhile, US retailer Home Depot is testing exoskeletons to help workers unload trucks and bring materials onto the floor.
Another early adopter is Lockheed Martin, which is using its own Fortis exoskeleton to allow workers to operate tools for much longer periods. It has a support structure that transfers the weight of heavy loads from the operator’s body directly to the ground through a series of joints at the hips, knees and ankles.
It can also be used with an arm that supports the weight of a tool helps isolate vibration and torque kick – rotational force – from the user. Workers using the devices, says Lockheed Martin, report two-thirds less fatigue, with higher quality work, greater productivity and fewer musculoskeletal injuries.
Other companies are producing powered industrial exoskeletons that are rather more like the suits from the movies. Sarcos, for example, offers three models, with the biggest – the Guardian GT (pictured) – handling more than 450kg with its 2m (7ft) arms.
“I think powered exoskeletons will become ubiquitous for industrial applications around the world. These devices will materially reduce occupational injuries while also dramatically improving productivity,” says chief executive officer Ben Wolff.
“Additionally, these devices can extend the useful life of an aging work force, and can make jobs open for more people that previously could have only been handled by people of larger physical stature.”
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Other augmentation technologies are even stranger. Researchers at Cornell’s Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, for example, have developed a robotic “third arm” that attaches to the user’s elbow. The group says it sees applications in package handling, warehouses, and even restaurants.
“A third arm device would enhance a worker’s reach, and allow them to access objects without having to reach or bend. This would be useful in pick-and-place tasks where the worker is moving, such as retrieving packages from warehouse shelves,” says researcher Vighnesh Vatsal.
“It would also provide support in assembly tasks in challenging environments such as construction sites, for instance by holding a work piece steady while a worker operates on it with power tools using their own hands.”
In the longer term, industry experts say the price of exoskeletons will fall further, meaning they could move into many more areas of work. They could even find a place in private life, with applications in DIY, gardening and sports such as hiking.
So while we’ll never be likely to be able to emulate the exploits of comic book heroes, exoskeletons could help with mundane household chores such as ironing. So not so much Iron Man – more “ironing man”, perhaps?