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CONTRACTORS FIND SUPER POWERS WITH EXOSKELETONS

BY DEBRA WOOD

Seeking to increase productivity and improve safety, contractors have begun trying exoskeletons, mechanical, robotic frames to help with lifting and holding tools overhead, aiding but not replacing human workers.

“Exoskeletons are good for situations where the task cannot be automated easily,” says Homayoon Kazerooni, PhD, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, a pioneer in exoskeleton research and development of the robotic systems and CEO of suitX, also in Berkeley. “Workers in construction are hard to replace with a robotic device. The quality of the job depends on worker judgment and experience…We augment [the worker], so he does not get injured.”

Exoskeletons are wearable robotic systems that enhance the abilities of the people who use them, according to Kazerooni. He estimates exoskeletons reduce the forces on humans by about 60 percent. In another study, a backX device increased a worker’s endurance time by 40 percent.

“We witnessed an example of an increase in productivity,” Kazerooni says. “We noticed a worker wearing a shoulder-supporting exoskeleton had finished a grinding and buffing job in one day. The job was scheduled to be completed in two days.”

HISTORY

In the 1960s, General Electric, with funding from the U.S. military, built an exoskeleton named Hardiman. The device could lift 1,500 pounds, but it weighed 1,500 pounds and contained a complex electronic and hydraulic network. It never entered production.

Raytheon of Tewksbury, Massachusetts, began working on creating an exoskeleton for the U.S. Army in 2000 and introduced its second-generation exoskeleton (XOS 2) in 2010. The XOS 2 was lighter, faster and stronger. The device allowed the wearer to lift 200 pounds several hundred times, without feeling tired.

Ekso Bionics of Richmond, California, founded in 2005 by Kazerooni and colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley, entered into an agreement with Lockheed Martin in 2009 to co-develop the human universal load carrier, a hydraulicpowered exoskeleton for soldiers.

People in other countries also have been working on exoskeletons. The Japanese developed a wearable, battery-powered robotic suit to help rehabilitate patients in physical therapy and aid nurses when lifting. Serbians experimented with exoskeletons to assist patients with paralysis.

Until recently, rehabilitation of patients with paralysis or brain injuries was the most common, practical use for exoskeletons. The devices allow people who could not ambulate on their own to walk again.

Meanwhile, Ekso Bionics and suitX have developed exoskeletons for manufacturing and construction workers. The devices are lighter than those worn by paralyzed patients to walk, and they are not tethered.

“The technology for exoskeletons for medical purposes is fundamentally different than for industrial uses,” Kazerooni says. “They are totally different.”

Ekso Bionics and Ford have partnered to pilot use of its EksoVest to support workers’ arms when performing overhead work in about 15 plants. The vest assists with lifting five to 15 pounds per arm.

TYPES OF EXOSKELETONS

Full-body exoskeletons, vests and leg units are currently available. The full-body unit can assist with shoulder, back and leg tasks. Three modules make up the suitX MAX full-body model. The modules can be worn independently or in combination.

Leg units reduce knee fatigue and can be helpful in squatting positions. Back exoskeletons can reduce the risk of lower back strains by reducing spine compression.

Additionally, Ekso Bionics offers the EksoZeroG, not a true exoskeleton, because it is not worn. However it helps with heavy tasks.

With suitX, Kazerooni is developing the exoskeletons at lower costs than original products. For instance, the shoulder exoskeleton retails for $5,000 and weighs about six pounds, and rests on the hip.

“Workers cannot afford expensive devices,” Kazerooni says. “I want to bring technology to the people.”

Exoskeletons can be actuated, with a power source or energy supply to provide torque, or passive. Units with a power source, typically, allow the user to lift more than passive units.

“Exoskeletons are considered a safety device, like hard hats and gloves and harnesses,” Kazerooni says. “It also improves the quality of the work.”

CONTRACTORS’ EXPERIENCES

Contractors have started to try exoskeletons in the field.

Consigli Construction, a member of multiple AGC chapters, has purchased a couple of different exoskeletons: shoulder vests and a robot arm, the EksoZeroG, which can support a 36-pound tool.

“They have been helpful,” says Jack Moran, manager of Virtual Design & Construction Services at Consigli. “We’ve used them for a few different uses.”

Consigli has used the exoskeletons for chipping masonry with a hammer drill and handing masonry units up to another person, primarily overhead work, like spraying foam or painting. Workers do not have to rotate in and out as often. The devices work by springs, with no power source. They are not helpful when picking up things from the ground.

“The exoskeletons take the weight of the tool off of your arm,” Moran explains. “It has had a big impact on fatigue, holding a tool overhead. …We also think it will help with quality.”

AR Daniel Construction Services in Cedar Hill, Texas, a member of AGC of Texas Highway, Heavy, Utilities and Industrial Branch, also has tried exoskeletons. The company has rented a shoulder vest with a spring system and an EksoZeroG, used with pneumatic breakers.

“Neither work 100 percent in all of the situations we want,” says Art Daniel, president and COO of AR Daniel and a past president of AGC of America. He expects if the wearer used it all day, the device would have improved productivity.

Workers typically quickly learn how to use an exoskeleton. Kazerooni estimates that it would take a construction worker no more than an hour to become comfortable using the device. There is no training or programming involved.

“We have not given up on it,” Daniel says. “There are several benefits. It could cut down on injuries, increase the safety factor, and with that costs go down.”

The suit was easier to learn than the arm, Daniel says. The tool was at the arm’s maximum capacity, making it more challenging.

“After [workers]
used it for a while, they could see the benefit,” Daniel adds.

Moran agreed that the exoskeletons were simple to use but took a little while for people to get accustomed to wearing one.

“The people that have used it, love it, even those who were skeptical at first,” Moran says. “They do not want to share it. It’s hard to get it out of the field.”

A LOOK AHEAD

The future is bright for exoskeletons. They may be coming to your jobsite sometime soon. Kazerooni, however, thinks robots replacing construction workers will take a long time to occur if ever.

“Exoskeletons have more use and applications than robots by themselves,” Kazerooni says.

Kazerooni expects more construction firms will start trying exoskeletons. He also hopes to expand the market so individuals can purchase exoskeletons at big-box retailers, such as The Home Depot.

ABI Research in Oyster Bay, New York, reported earlier this year that by 2022, the global market for exoskeletons will surpass $1 billion, and by 2028, the global exoskeleton market will achieve revenues of $5 billion.

Manufacturing, with much repetitive overhead work, may adopt the exoskeleton technology before construction, Daniel predicts, explaining that construction is not as repetitive.

However, Daniel suggests fellow contractors be creative and expect resistance from staff members. His company plans to try exoskeletons again.

“The more we delve into them and attempt their use, the more knowledge will be out there for how they could be adapted to work in construction,” Daniel says.

Moran encourages other contractors to try an exoskeleton. Even though the exoskeletons were not cheap, he says, they are less expensive than a shoulder injury.

“We are big believers,” Moran says.