Exoskeletons Get Real: The Ultimate Wearable Technology?

Exoskeletons are nothing new and far from science fiction; in fact, researchers began developing exoskeletons for military use as early as the 1960s. For the last decade, engineers have been exploring exoskeletons designed to augment human strength and other abilities for military, medical and industrial purposes. Over time, these devices have become less clunky and expensive (from over $100k to under $10k in many cases) as well as more specialized and powerful.

Arguably, exoskeletons, not AR/VR, are the current star of enterprise wearables. Today, real companies with the funds to do so are transforming workers’ productivity and safety by introducing even just a few exoskeletons on the job site or factory floor. Ford recently made the largest order of industrial exoskeletons to date, with ABI Research expecting the market to rise from 67.29 million to $1.76 billion by 2028—exoskeletons have arrived.


Exoskeletons find their sweet spot

Combining the power of robots with the intelligence and adaptability of humans sounds great, but the execution – designing machines that conform to how we’re shaped and the way we move – is challenging. How do you make a machine both lightweight and flexible, adaptable to a wide variety of body shapes and sizes? Nevertheless, there are now tool-holding (partial) exoskeletons, exoskeletons for back support and sitting comfortably in mid-air, and even full-body, sci-fi-looking powered exosuits.

No post about exoskeletons can fail to mention this major driver for the advancement of the technology: Workplace injuries. Exoskeleton development has evolved from military and medical applications to industry, where wearable robotics are finding their sweet spot. Legacy industries like manufacturing that are changing due to automation but still rely heavily on human input; industries like construction and shipbuilding in which productivity hasn’t risen in decades; and industries where awkward positions, repetitive motion, and overexertion are common and employers shell out billions on workers’ compensation are particularly ripe for exoskeleton technology.

Assembling, building, moving… the heavy-duty operations of industry in which workers are required to wield heavy power tools, perform overhead tasks, stand for long periods of time, etc. breed accidents, injuries and long-term musculoskeletal stress. The U.S. alone spends $21 billion on workplace injuries, the price tag of healthcare treatment and lost worker productivity. When you consider that a single rotator cuff surgery can take out a worker for up to seven months and cost employers up to $56,000, wearable robot suits don’t seem so crazy. And major industrial players and startups alike recognize the growing opportunity:


 The market

Where once there were a handful of companies working on industrial exoskeletons, the exoskeleton market today has become quite crowded. Here are some of the companies developing and selling partial or full-body, powered or unpowered exoskeletons:

Tool-holding

Lockheed Martin

The large defense firm has long been interested in human augmentation, mainly in the military arena. In 2014, Lockheed introduced its first industrial exoskeleton product FORTIS (currently $24,750). FORTIS, a passive (unpowered), lightweight exoskeleton that transfers loads from a standing or kneeling position to the ground, makes heavy tools like a giant power drill feel weightless to the operator. Lockheed also sells the FORTIS Tool Arm ($7,149), which reduces muscle fatigue to allow the use of heavy hand tools for long shifts.

Bioservo

Bioservo’s first commercial product, the SEM Glove contained sensors that detected the wearer’s actions and activated motorized support when needed to grasp objects. Based on the company’s patented SEM (Soft Extra Muscle) technology, Ironhand ($9,250) is Bioservo’s newest product and a successor to the SEM Glove. It supports grip-intensive tasks while collecting data to categorize risky use cases and can be worn under a normal working glove. Bioservo bills Ironhand as “the world’s first soft robotic muscle strengthening system.” The company has signed contracts with General Motors, Airbus, NASA, and others.


Support 

noonee

With the Chairless Chair ($4,360) by noonee, employees can create a comfortable, more productive workspace at any time. The lower-body exoskeleton is designed to prevent back pain for workers who spend a large part of the day standing by essentially allowing the wearer to lock in and sit in mid-air while doing her work. The Chairless Chair debuted on several manufacturing lines and is now in use globally by over 100 companies. 

Laevo 

The Laevo (approx. $2,000) is a passive back-support exoskeleton for workers who have to frequently bend forward and lift objects. It works by transferring force from the upper body through the straps and to the thighs, thereby reducing pressure on the user’s spine and back by up to 40%. Laevo describes wearing its exoskeleton as “just like” putting on “a coat”—it adapts to your posture so the wearer has a lot of freedom of movement.

StrongArm Technologies

StrongArm’s FLx ErgoSkeleton ($298) is a data-driven upper-body exoskeleton with sensors that monitor posture and movement, providing feedback to ensure the wearer conforms to OSHA safe lifting guidelines. The solution promotes good posture and safe lifting by encouraging the user to bend at the knees and pivot instead of twist. The V-22 ErgoSkeleton ($629) adds cords to the FLx model; these loop over the shoulders and attach to a worker’s hands to restrict arm movements in such a way as to automate proper lifting. The passive exoskeleton shifts weight from the weak areas of the body to the user’s legs and core.

SuitX

SuitX has three models of industrial exoskeletons – backX ($4,000), legX ($6,000) and shoulderX ($4,000) – individual modules that when worn together form the full-body MAX exoskeleton. With backX to help with lifting heavy loads, legX to support crouching for extended periods of time, and shoulder to alleviate overhead work; the full MAX system allows wearers to perform lower back-, leg- and shoulder-intensive tasks with less risk of injury.


Full-body

Sarcos Robotics (Raytheon)

Not yet commercially available, Guardian XO is a robust, powered exosuit that’s said to enable the wearer to lift up to 200 pounds without exertion or strain. The XO features “scaled dexterous end effectors” and force feedback, allowing highly precise tasks with heavy tools or components. Sarcos says the Guardian XO and Guardian XO Max are “coming soon,” and the company recently secured its second development contract with the U.S. Air Force. Sarcos has also formed X-TAG, an industry-focused Exoskeleton Technical Advisory Group, along with executives from Bechtel, BMW, and more.

Comau

MATE (Muscular Aiding Tech Exoskeleton) by Comau is a spring-based exoskeleton designed to ease the shoulder muscles and provide lightweight yet effective postural support during manual and repetitive tasks. Designed in partnership with ÖSSUR and IUVO, a spin-off of The BioRobotics Institute, along with input from factory workers; MATE will be available in December 2018.


New entrants

LG

Household name LG is about to unveil the CLOi SuitBot, which looks like a pair of robotic pants and supports mobility by enhancing the power of the user’s legs. The exoskeleton can work alongside LG’s other service robots as part of a more advanced smart workforce scheme, and it uses AI to learn and evolve over time by analyzing biometric and environmental data. LG hasn’t revealed a price.

Ottobock 

Ottobock is a German artificial limb manufacturer whose close competitor Össur helped Comau design MATE. Paexo is Ottobock’s new project, an upper-body exoskeleton that relieves the strain of repetitive overhead assembly work. Paexo has been tested on 30 Volkswagen plant workers and the automaker is considering using Paexo in series production.


The future of manual labor begins now: Use cases

Betting on the promise of wearable robotics to increase productivity and reduce injuries; a number of construction, manufacturing and logistics companies have begun testing and even deploying exoskeletons. Here are some of the more recent use cases:

Lowe’s

Lowe’s employees can spend up to 90% of their day lifting and moving bags of cement, buckets of paint, etc. So, last spring the home improvement retailer teamed up with Virginia Tech to develop a lift-assist exosuit that would make the workday easier. The result: A kind of harness-meets-backpack with carbon-fiber rods running down the back and thighs. The rods flex and straighten when the user bends or stands, absorbing energy that’s then delivered to the worker when needed. During a 3-month pilot, test subjects wore enjoyment-sensing headsets in addition to providing verbal feedback about the exosuits.

The promised benefits are myriad for Lowe’s: Improved customer service (store staff can fetch items for customers), reduced costs (fewer injuries, reduced insurance premiums), and even better recruitment.

Ford 

In 2017, four employees at a Ford plant in Missouri tried out the EksoVest by Ekso Bionics, an unpowered, adjustable exoskeleton vest that can help workers do things like install carbon cans on cars suspended above them at a rate of 70 cars/hour. The United Automobile Workers Union actually paid for the trial to see if exoskeletons could really reduce common injuries among autoworkers.

Ford has been interested in wearable robotics since 2011, particularly for preventing shoulder injuries, which take the longest to recover from. The ROI is there: If one $5,000 EksoVest lasts three years, the cost comes out to 12 cents/hour/employee. That’s around the same price as a pair of disposable gloves and far less than the cost of even just one shoulder injury.

Just last month following 16 months of testing, Ford went into deployment mode, ordering 75 EksoVests for employees all over the world. This is the largest order of industrial exoskeletons ever placed and the first step in Ford’s plans to launch exoskeletons in factories worldwide.  

The EksoVest provides up to 15 pounds of lift assistance and support (per arm) during the overhead tasks Ford assembly line workers perform millions of times a year. Additionally, Ford is testing a motion-tracking bodysuit and camera solution at one of its plants in Spain, with the goal of making data-driven modifications to workstations and vehicle production processes that reduce physical stress.

Boeing

For as long as Ford, Boeing has been experimenting with exoskeletons to address the problems automation can’t solve. Wiring a Boeing 777, for instance, a task so complex only a highly skilled human can perform it, is a perfect opportunity for an exoskeleton. What attracts Boeing to exoskeletons are not only rising insurance premiums but also the possibility of improving the lives of its technicians who train for years to do their jobs and whose absence or retirement would be a hit to the aerospace giant’s productivity.

Though still in the experimental phase, Boeing has been running pilots to match the right exoskeleton to the right type of work and studying years of safety data to see where injuries are most likely to occur. Boeing mechanics in South Carolina have actually gone through training on the EksoVest, as Boeing hopes to roll out the tech to more workers in 2019. Apparently, Boeing employees love the exoskeletons.


Challenges still ahead

For every new type of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) there is process of adoption, and it’s no different with exoskeletons. The wearable robotics space is evolving fast; prices will continue to fall and the exoskeletons themselves will become lighter and more powerful over the next three to five years, but it takes a lot of testing! A good sign is the interest of the ATSM International, a body that sets manufacturing standards and has created a special committee of 90 organizations focused on exoskeletons and exosuits. Just as walking in areas of a job site without the proper PPE is forbidden, one day workers on construction sites and in warehouses and manufacturing plants will be forbidden to operate tools without the appropriate exoskeleton.

 

The Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit (EWTS) is an annual conference dedicated to the use of wearable technology for business and industrial applications. As the leading event for enterprise wearables, EWTS is where enterprises go to innovate with the latest in wearable tech, including heads-up displays, AR/VR/MR, body- and wrist-worn devices, and even exoskeletons. The 5th annual EWTS will be held October 9-11, 2018 at The Fairmont in Austin, TX. For more details, please visit the conference website.


Augmented World Expo (AWE), the world’s #1 AR+VR conference and expo, comes to Munich, Germany on October 18-19, 2018. CXOs, designers, developers, futurists, analysts, investors and top press will gather at the MOC Exhibition Center to learn, inspire, partner and experience first-hand the most exciting industry of our times. Tickets now available at www.aweeu.com.

 

Image source: Digital Trends

Driving Ahead: Car Companies Using XR to Adapt in a Post-Uber World

My last blog post built upon Uber’s wrecking ball-style entrance into the cab industry. Less obvious is Uber’s impact in the automotive sector, where the app is creating waves for car manufacturers. Ride-sharing is just one of the trends forcing the auto industry to transform. In fact, some industry observers believe automotive is about to have its most dramatic revolution since Henry Ford’s time.


State of the Auto Industry

Changing Attitudes Towards Vehicle Ownership and Declining Sales

Private car ownership is becoming less and less necessary, practical and desirable in many cities around the world thanks to the rising costs of urban living, civic measures to discourage car use, worsening traffic and lack of parking, and always-available services like Uber and Lyft.

More car ownership trends: As cars have become more reliable, people are holding onto them for longer or opting for used cars. Delayed by student debt and economic uncertainty, young professionals aren’t moving to the suburbs like their parents did; and younger Americans simply prefer ordering a car via app to owning one—all reasons why vehicle sales declined in 2017 for the first time in years. This downward trend will likely continue; for while ride-hailing makes owning a car unnecessary, in a future with self-driving vehicles people won’t even need to know how to drive.


Ride-sharing and the New Car Buyers

Uber has forever changed how we get around, but why is this problematic for automakers? It’s not like ride-hailing is making cars obsolete. The issue is Uber’s impact on consumer behavior. Automobile manufacturers have been marketing new vehicle designs and features to customer types that are pulling away from car buying (for now). Take the new driver: Learning to drive has traditionally been a rite of passage for suburban teens, but far fewer millennials have driver’s licenses today compared to older generations. So, what will the future of car ownership look like?

In the future, ride-sharing companies and contractors – less discriminatory than traditional car buyers – may very well be the auto industry’s top clientele, and vehicles may become increasingly homogenized as a result. Though still far away from fleets of robocabs, car culture is changing: Personal cars don’t have the same social status they used to, and ride-sharing vehicles are invading city streets. Automotive companies must adapt to the social change brought by new mobility services.


The Race to Get Connected and Achieve Autonomy

On top of the classic goals of reducing costs, improving fuel efficiency, increasing sales, etc.; auto companies today are competing to redefine consumers’ relationship with cars and invent the future of driving. They’re designing ever-more futuristic vehicles – battery-powered, self-configuring, able to track the driver’s health and predict maintenance – and investing in the technology to build them: Cloud infrastructure software and analytics, artificial intelligence, mapping systems, plus the talent and expertise to go with these and other bleeding-edge technologies.


Autonomous vehicles may eventually boost private car ownership; but while companies race to develop the first commercially viable self-driving car platform, today’s drivers want better, smarter dealership and driving experiences. As the level of technological convenience and control in their lives increases, consumers expect more of every product and service offered to them. And though ride-sharing and the promise of self-driving vehicles in the next five years threaten to upend the entire model of car ownership, automakers cannot afford to neglect regular drivers. They need to continue to make and sell new cars, delivering semi-autonomous and connected driving upgrades and revamping the car buying process to lure people into dealerships and keep them in the brand.


Getting Ahead with XR: Ford, Volkswagen and Porsche

Arguably more than any other industry, the automotive sector has been the most aggressive in its wearable tech adoption. Auto companies have had the most success implementing exoskeletons, and they’re exploring Augmented and Virtual Reality in multiple areas of the automotive business. Read how Ford, Volkswagen and Porsche are using XR to advance their operations, improve the customer experience and bolster their brands amidst unprecedented change in the auto industry:


Ford

In addition to providing assembly line workers with upper body exoskeletons to reduce the physical toll of repetitive overhead tasks, Ford has been working to develop VR platforms for both its customers and designers.

Last year, after an initial pilot phase at its Design Studio in Cologne, the auto giant expanded its use of Microsoft’s HoloLens. The technology enables Ford designers and engineers to more effectively work together on confidential designs and quickly model out changes to vehicles, viewing those changes on top of a real car as opposed to the time-consuming and expensive clay model approach. Ford hasn’t entirely abandoned clay models but with Mixed Reality, designers don’t have to build out a new clay prototype after every design decision; they can just augment the 3D model.

At Ford, Mixed Reality is proving to be a boon to innovation, collaboration, and time to market—improvements that will aid the American auto brand’s efforts to reimagine vehicles, deliver a better in-vehicle experience, and differentiate itself through design. Beyond vehicle design, Ford envisions consumers using AR/VR headsets at home to customize cars and create their own virtual test drive experiences; and Ford dealers using state-of-the-art hologram display cars to more effectively utilize showroom space.

(^Elizabeth Baron, Technical Specialist in VR and Advanced Visualization at Ford, will speak at EWTS 2018.)


Volkswagen

In Fall 2017, Volkswagen established a Digital Realities team encompassing 12 of its brands across 120 sites around the world and a Digital Reality Hub to enable long-distance collaboration among team members. The German automaker had been experimenting with HoloLens at its Virtual Engineering Lab in Wolfsburg, to project designs onto a scale model of a VW Golf; and exploring how to apply the technology to technical development.

From these efforts came the Digital Reality Hub, which combines multiple group VR applications and tools into one platform allowing designers and engineers all over to work on the same project simultaneously, exchange and test ideas, and even participate in virtual workshops. In addition to new vehicle models, real locations like factory production lines can be modeled in the virtual environment to trial optimization measures without the need for site visits.

It cannot be overstated how much XR impacts productivity or how critical an efficient network among Volkswagen’s global brands will be to the company’s success in the next phase of the auto industry. Most recently, VW teamed up with VR studio Innoactive to create more than 30 VR training scenarios for the HTC Vive Pro. The automaker plans to train 10,000 employees in production and logistics this year using Virtual Reality.


Porsche

In November, Porsche introduced the “Tech Live Look” Augmented Reality solution for dealerships, which consists of Atheer’s AiR Enterprise software platform running on smart glasses. Wearing the glasses, an L.A.-based service technician can connect with Porsche’s technical support team over 2,000 miles away in Atlanta and receive remote expert help in identifying and resolving technical issues. The remote expert can take screen shots of the tech’s view or project instructions into her field of view while she works—far more efficient than an email or phone call.

In a July 2017 pilot program across eight dealerships, the “see-what-I-see” technology helped decrease service resolution time by up to 40%. Not only is this the kind of quick turnaround service consumers are coming to expect, but when the solution launches this year it will be a real differentiator for the luxury car brand. Again, as the technology inside vehicles gets more advanced and as companies like Porsche transition from the mentality of car as a product to vehicle as an experience; the capabilities offered by XR – better communication, productivity, visualization, decision making, problem solving and customer experience – become more significant.

(^Heather Turney, Culture and Innovation Manager at Porsche, will speak at EWTS 2018.)


With all the disruption caused by new alternatives to vehicle ownership, new energy options, 3D printing of auto parts, AI, self-driving tech, etc.; it’s more important than ever for automakers to optimize operations, automate assembly lines, engage consumers, and prepare the workforce for more complex manufacturing and IT-heavy jobs. One major step is to adopt XR as a standard tool for design, training, production and customer service. After all, how can you expect to build the future if your factory and workforce are still in the past? How can you invent the future if it takes days and weeks to collaborate and review designs? And how can you sell the future if consumers aren’t excited about it?

 

The 5th Annual Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit 2018, the leading event for enterprise wearables, will take place October 9-10, 2018 at The Fairmont in Austin, TX. EWTS is where enterprises go to innovate with the latest in wearable tech, including heads-up displays, AR/VR/MR, body- and wrist-worn devices, and even exoskeletons. For details, early confirmed speakers and preliminary agenda, please stay tuned to the conference website.


Augmented World Expo (AWE,) the world’s largest conference and expo dedicated to Augmented and Virtual Reality, is taking place May 30-June 1, 2018 in Santa Clara, CA. Now in its 9th year, AWE USA is the destination for CXOs, designers, developers, creative agencies, futurists, analysts, investors and top press to learn, inspire, partner and experience first-hand the most exciting industry of our times.

photo credit: Pittou2 Salon de L’auto Tesla Model S via photopin (license)

Top 3 Applications for Wearable Technology and Augmented Reality in the Automotive Industry

Written by Special Guest Blogger Randy Nunez, Tech Trend Lead, Extended Reality IT Enterprise Technology – Research, Ford Motor Company

As wearables become more pervasive in the consumer market, their use in the enterprise will also expand.  While wearable solutions such as fitness bands and smartwatches can be useful, I think that smart eyewear will have a greater impact in the business environment than for consumers.  Providing information on demand in a hands-free format is a powerful capability that smart eyewear brings to the workplace.

Outlined here are what I consider the top three use cases for wearable technology/AR in the automotive industry.  In this case the target audience is the employee or contractor within the organization, so these use cases could apply to other industries as well.

  1. Guided instructions

Adding digital or virtual content while in the real world to provide step-by-step instructions for procedures or workflows is a key use case.  This information could be as simple as text, images, or videos in monocular eyewear that is ‘glanceable’.  In certain environments like the plant floor or a warehouse facility, having a less immersive solution, sometimes called assisted reality, enables the information to be provided while the wearer maintains awareness of the environment around them.   A more immersive solution, typically for more stationary activities, can use binocular eyewear and augmented or mixed reality.  This can provide a digital information overlaid over a real-world object or an ‘underlay’ which provides an x-ray-like view into parts and subsystems within a fully assembled product.  Some use case examples include parts picking, inspections, assembly/disassembly and repairs.

  1. See-What-I-See/Remote expert

Using smart eyewear in conjunction with video/audio collaboration software can connect local users with remote experts to provide real-time guidance.  One advantage of smart eyewear is its hands-free nature that allows the local user to continue to work.  Some systems allow screen annotations to provide better visual clues for both parties. This could be low-tech, from marking up an image, to high-tech, which creates a 3D annotation in space that is locked in that position even if you change your view.  It has the potential to reduce travel and its associated expenses and decrease the time to resolve issues.  Some use case examples include facility or program launch/decommissioning and dealership service support.

  1. Design visualization

Visual 3D representation of a vehicle design can include physical prototypes made of clay or wood.  This can be expensive and time-consuming to create and modify.  Virtual reality can be used as an effective immersion tool, but augmented reality can add yet another dimension of realism to the process.  A vehicle buck (physical mock-up) could be overlaid with digital content, allowing the comparison of various designs and enabling real-time changes in attributes (color, size, etc.).   Digital ‘comments’ from a reviewer could be recorded in audio and text formats and anchored in the exact 3D location for later reference.  Some use cases include the design process as well as during design reviews.

While smart eyewear/AR technologies are still nascent, there is tremendous potential to change the way we work.  I also believe there are use cases for both monocular and binocular smart eyewear as well as the spectrum of augmented reality, from assisted to mixed.

 

*Randy will be speaking on a panel discussion around the applications for smart glasses and other head-worn devices in enterprise on Thursday, May 11, 2017 at the Spring Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit 2017 in San Diego, CA.

Wearable Technology at Work for Enterprise Business, Part 1 – Automotive

At this stage in the adoption of wearable technology in enterprise, we’re all hungry for use cases to inspire and teach us. While news articles and press releases provide us with a taste of which companies are openly experimenting with wearables and the basic applications, they are by no means complete case studies.

BrainXchange recently wrote a white paper in collaboration with Hewlett Packard Enterprise examining several real-life use cases of wearables at work in different enterprise operations. These examples were gathered from HPE’s work with its real enterprise customers, and are presented in the paper – beyond the mere facts of each use case – to give you real, valuable insight into the pain points faced by today’s enterprises and how wearable solutions like HPE’s MyRoom/VRG platform are making a big difference. Continue reading “Wearable Technology at Work for Enterprise Business, Part 1 – Automotive”