Presentation Details The Latest Developments In Exoskeletons For Manual Material Handling Applications

One of the emerging ergonomic assist technologies beginning to be deployed into manufacturing facilities and warehouses is exoskeletons (also called “exos”). These lightweight, external frames are worn by a worker with the goal of helping them to perform manual, repetitive material handling activities safely and efficiently.

Earlier this year, Dr. Donald R. Peterson, Dean of the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology at Northern Illinois University, shared the latest advances in exoskeleton design and use in material handling applications in a presentation to the members of the Ergonomic Assist Systems & Equipment (EASE) Industry Group.

Peterson, who has more than 25 years of experience in biomedical engineering and medical research, investigates occupational exoskeleton use as one of his focus subjects. He also serves as the Chair of the ASTM International Committee F48 on Exoskeletons and Exosuits, which works continuously on the development and maintenance of standards for this emerging technology.

In the presentation, Peterson explained that an exoskeleton supports the human body and enhances its physical capabilities in order to improve performance and reduce the risk of injury. They can also be designed to minimize or prevent strains caused by movements associated with poor ergonomics — such as overexertion, reaching, stretching, pushing, pulling, carrying heavy loads, bending and twisting — by physically prohibiting the wearer from doing so.

Currently, there are roughly 120 companies developing exoskeletons for a variety of different applications across multiple industries. He estimates there are approximately 25,000 exos already deployed worldwide. Of those, he knows of four or five being used in material handling applications, primarily within manufacturing operations.

The focus of exoskeleton development is to enhance the safety of the wearer, Peterson noted in his presentation.

“Some of the goals of exoskeleton technology design include seamless interaction with the user without prohibiting their movement or being uncomfortable to wear,” he explained. “It can’t disrupt the person’s natural movement, or they will perceive that immediately. Ease of use, once you have it on, is critical so that the wearer can move and eventually forget that the exoskeleton is there.”

The caveat, he cautioned, is to ensure that the exoskeleton does not give the wearer a false sense of being superhuman, or that he or she can handle a heavier load than they actually should. “Doing so could lead to, at worst case, an injury that the exoskeleton is intended to prevent. Proper training is critical to the successful and safe use of this technology,” Peterson noted.

Additionally, there is no one-size-fits-all exoskeleton technology. Instead, it’s important to match the exoskeleton to the task at hand. The system designer needs to fully understand the process in which the unit is going to be used, and the wearer needs to understand understands its limitations, he advised.

Peterson also explained that the exoskeletons themselves require regular, if not daily, adjustment and maintenance, particularly if they are being shared among workers. Although exoskeletons are somewhat adjustable, they should be sized to the scale of each person wearing them. One designed for a smaller framed person would not be appropriate for someone with a larger body type, he added.

During his presentation, Peterson also shared the development progress of exoskeleton standards, as well as some of the testing procedures and protocols that are being used to evaluate their use in different applications.

Want to hear more on the latest exoskeleton developments? The entire presentation recording is available, here.