The current robotics limelight tends to focus on the ability of new innovations to automate tasks, but a less publicized development is taking place with passive exoskeletons that augment the capability of human workers.
We visited with Levitate, whose Airframe exoskeleton product has just been made required equipment for 24 workers in the welding shop at the Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada plant in Woodstock, Ontario.
The Airframe is a backback that has spring-loaded arms, which support the wearer’s own arms, just under the triceps area. They provide a lifting assist when the wearer raises his or her arms. The Airframe is an ergonomic device that supports the upper extremities of workers, surgeons and builders. It can lower exertion levels by up to 80 percent.
Last year Toyota’s Woodstock plant mandated 24 employees in the welding shop to use the Airframe exoskeletons. Toyota’s Princeton, Ind., plant has followed suit, with nearly 200 of the facility’s 7,369 workers now required to use the devices. Toyota has made the Airframe mandatory personal protective equipment (PPE) just like a pair of safety glasses, closed-toe shoes or earplugs. This is a significant milestone not just for Levitate but for the entire exoskeleton industry.
“We identified risks of working overhead as a primary factor and contributor to injuries, so we tried to find ways to eliminate those risks, and the exoskeleton fit the bill quite well,” said Marc Duplessis, the Woodstock plant’s health and safety manager.”
The passive exoskeletons are expected to propel development of active suits. ABI Research estimates that by 2028, global exoskeleton revenues will reach US$5 billion with hundreds of thousands of active exoskeletons deployed. Powered suits will eventually provide significant augmentative capability to the industrial workforce.
“We are only talking about thousands of units being deployed so far, and the majority of these are passive. The first challenge of getting exoskeletons deployed and mandated as part of protective equipment practices in high-wage OEMs has been achieved,” said said Rian Whitton, senior analyst at ABI Research.
“The next stage is to integrate the use of exoskeletons with robotic arms, collaborative robots, and mobile robots through advanced location technologies, haptics, and gesture control.”
This is a long-term vision, and the industry should not expect the exoskeleton opportunity to exceed hundreds of thousands of units or billions in revenue within the next two to three years, with the global market to surpass US$ 1 billion in 2022.