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OM in the News: The Rise of the Exoskeleton

January 24, 2019

Exoskeleton at a Ford plant

In the weld shop of Toyota’s huge Ontario plant, workers inspect the steel frame of a RAV4. The men raise their arms overhead as they move ultrasonic wands over metal to test the integrity of dozens of welds. Until a few months ago, this task was performed by seated workers wielding hammers and chisels. But the latest RAV4 uses a lighter, stronger steel that requires ultrasonic testing. A new frame arrives every 60 seconds. The prolonged reaching is shoulder-breaking work, the kind that can lead to debilitating injuries and decreased productivity.

But these workers are assisted by exoskeletons, wearable devices made by Levitate Technologies. The upper-body frames use a system of springs, cables and pulleys to transfer weight from the arms to the outside of the hips, easing the strain of overhead work. When a worker raises his arms, the exoskeleton provides a counterweight that makes the arms feel buoyant, as if the upper body is suspended in water. The system gradually releases as the limbs are lowered, allowing the arms to hang unassisted.

Exoskeletons may one day become commonplace on factory floors, construction sites and film sets. Toyota is the first large manufacturer to require the use of exoskeletons, but Ford uses about 100 exoskeletons across 16 plants in 8 countries. BMW has 66 in use at its Spartanburg, S.C., plant, while Boeing will use a couple hundred by mid-year.

There are upper-body, lower-body and full-body models. Most range in price from $4,000-$6,000, weigh 5-10 pounds and require a one-time adjustment to a user’s frame. Factory workers who’ve tried exoskeletons report less back and shoulder pain, and go home at night more active and relaxed. “Ultimately,” writes The Wall Street Journal (Jan. 19-20, 2019), “the hope is that the devices will reduce work-related musculoskeletal disorders, which cost employers about $50 billion annually.”

Classroom discussion questions:
1. What is ergonomics and how is this an ergonomic device?

2. What other issues in the work environment can impact performance, safety, and quality of life?

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