The rise of exoskeletons in logistics

It might be an understatement that technology has drastically changed modern logistics. From RFID and robotics to TMS systems that drive elastic logistics, there are few areas left untouched. One area we’re seeing that evolution, particularly in the past five years, is with companies utilizing exoskeletons to gain a competitive advantage by keeping workers healthy.

Exoskeletons are no longer something out of a sci-fi movie – used to help humans fight off an alien invasion. The reality is there is a new class of modern exoskeletons that are lightweight, simple to use, and non-invasive to help logistics workers keep up with an ever-increasing demand.

One of the primary reasons for recent exoskeleton successes has been the rise of exosuits; “soft shell” textile-based exoskeletons that are more comfortable and lighter weight. Companies use them as a way to combat the fatigue, strain, and other risks that lead to musculoskeletal disorders in their workers – which helps operations tackle a billion-dollar problem in the process.

In the past few years, several forward-thinking companies have been early adopters of exoskeleton technology. Geodis, a Dutch-based logistics company, began implementing passive (non-motorized) exoskeletons for back support in 2017.

It’s not only in the test phase, either. Toyota has been using exoskeletons at plants since 2015 – including recently making them mandatory PPE in a plant in Indiana. Other major corporations, such as Ford and Boeing, have also added exoskeletons to their operational toolbox.

Exosuits and exoskeletons aren’t science fiction anymore. They’re now a reality.

Technological advancements have made exosuits more affordable

The approachability and adaptability of exosuits are major drivers behind the popularity growth in logistics and other industries.

Facilities are using this new class of non-battery powered, non-motorized exoskeletons to help create a safer workspace and combat the costs associated with overexertion and repetitive motion injuries. Exosuit manufacturers’ have found ways to create proven, physics-based suits in a simpler, more practical fashion – with the end user’s wallet (and back) benefiting.

Exosuits are seen as a wise investment because of the high cost of fatigue-based injuries. The CDC reported recently that back pain is the most prevalent work-related health problem and OSHA estimates that employers pay nearly $1 billion per week for direct workers’ compensation. With back-assist exosuits, like our HeroWear Apex, you can achieve a custom fit suit that can take 30% of the load off a worker’s back for as low as $1,200 per suit.

These modular, custom-fit exosuits designed for all workers (regardless of gender, age, size) can be had without breaking the bank. Also, manufacturers with strong customer support, training, and implementation programs can help any organization make the most of their new technology adoption.

In terms of execution, exosuits won’t erase NIOSH’s Hierarchy of Controls. Instead, they are a significant improvement in the Personal Protective Equipment portion of that inverted pyramid. If all other steps in the Hierarchy can’t eliminate the risk, exosuits help reduce the chance of injury – all with a piece of equipment that can be put on and taken off inside of 30 seconds.

Discovering what’s fact and what’s fiction

With exosuits being relatively new to the market, there are some common myths around them: they are bulky, limit range of motion, or cause muscle atrophy.

That might be true of those sci-fi exoskeletons but in actuality, modern passive exos on the market are lightweight and practical.

Levitate’s AIRFRAME® shoulder-support exoskeleton, which Toyota has been using, is made up of cables, pulleys, springs, and aluminum tubing. The HeroWear Apex, which only weighs 3.4 pounds and is largely fabric, has the look and feel of wearing an empty backpack.

Some users often ask about the risk of muscle atrophy, but it’s important to remember: modern exosuits are not turning workers into human forklifts. Passive exosuits help workers in the lifting, bending, and reaching during a shift. Those 25-pounds boxes are still being lifted and moved. However, exosuits might make it feel like they’re only lifting a 15-pound box – that’s still plenty of work, but it makes a significant difference over the course of a workday and a career.

In fact, muscle atrophy can occur when there is too little or too much muscle activation. That means overexertion can lead to muscle atrophy, as well. The purpose of exosuits is to keep workers in that healthier “sweet spot.”

Exosuits help workers keep up with demand

Technology has forever changed the way work is done and nowhere is that more evident than in the world of logistics. But there will always be active workers lifting, bending, and reaching.

Because of the rise in their popularity, there is a wealth of information available about how exosuits could be a practical and simple solution for logistics operations. For example, ExoskeletonReport.com is a valuable resource for those interested in learning more.

Those images of exoskeletons allowing people to jump tall buildings or give them superhuman strength are great for a box-office blockbuster. However, the truth is exosuits are actively being used to help workers do their job safer, longer, and more efficiently. And the benefits aren’t just realized on the production floor. They allow workers to head home after a shift with more energy for whatever they enjoy outside of work.

To put it simply, exoskeletons don’t only help workers do their jobs better. Now it’s never been easier to implement exosuits to help businesses succeed and help workers live better.

 

About the Author:

Matt Marino is the Director of Ergonomics and Human Factors at HeroWear. He can be reached at mmarino@herowearexo.com. Matt has been an active member of the ASTM F48 Committee on Exoskeletons since its 2017 inception, and he is a founding partner of the ASTM Exo Technology Center of Excellence. Matt received his B.S. in Rehabilitation Science and M.S. in Physical Therapy from Northeastern University. He is a Certified Professional Ergonomist (CPE), Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), Tactical Strength and Conditioning Facilitator (TSAC-F), Certified Workers Compensation Healthcare Provider (CWcHP), Certified Personal Trainer (CPT), and Six Sigma Black Belt. He is also certified in all Functional Movement Systems screens, tests, and assessments (FMS, FCS, MCS, SFMA, and YBT).

HeroWear designs and manufactures exoskeleton technology for working men and women that lift every day in warehouses, on production lines and in combat zones. For more information on HeroWear, please go to www.herowearexo.com.

 

 

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