24 Sep 2018

Exoskeletons is the future of construction

Exoskeletons is the future of construction

Experts say the emerging technology could benefit people in physically demanding jobs

In science fiction, superhero movies and other works of popular culture, exoskeletons have empowered their users with super strength, speed and even powered flight. However, Thomas Sugar and other experts say the emerging technology has a much more simple role to play in the near future: improving the quality of workers' lives.

Sugar, co-founder and director of science and technology for the Wearable Robotics Association and a professor at the Arizona State University Polytechnic School, started in the field developing devices that aid stroke victims during recovery. He and his team then transitioned to exoskeletons that helped members of the U.S. military carry heavy items.

Sugar said he has since found a more widespread need for exoskeletons in industry. The technology shows promise in providing better ergonomic support, curbing repetitive stress injuries and decreasing fatigue among workers who, for example, have to crouch or hold their arms above their heads for significant portions of their workday.

The goal is to 'make it so at the end of 30 years, you feel OK,' he said, 'Not at the end of 30 years you're on workers' compensation. No one wants that.'

Key points

  • The automotive industry has been among the leading adopters, along with other labor-intensive fields such as aerospace, construction, warehousing, and oil and gas, one expert says.
  • Organizations are working on voluntary standards and guidance, likely coming out in parts over the next couple of years.
  • Testing of exoskeletons is ongoing at some workplaces, with plenty of safety questions still to be answered.

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A 'continuously evolving' field

News and resources website Exoskeleton Report states that the field is 'continuously evolving and reinventing itself,' and settling on one definition is difficult.

In general, industrial exoskeletons work in tandem with a user ' unlike an autonomous robot that works instead of the user, the website states. They are placed on the user to amplify, reinforce or restore human performance ' not as a replacement for an original body part.

The two major classifications of industrial exoskeletons are powered and passive. The latter is catching on more quickly because of lower costs and less complexity, experts say. Both can range from full body to gloves, which often are used to aid with grip and come in a variety of configurations.

Some exoskeletons are supernumerary, meaning they give workers extra hands or fingers. Those additional appendages also can help with the mental side of work, said William Billotte, physical scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and vice chair of ASTM International's Committee F48 on Exoskeletons and Exosuits.

'If the exoskeleton can handle some of the multitasking, that lessens my cognitive load,' Billotte said. 'If it can steady an object for me, that means I don't have to think about steadying it myself. I can concentrate more on the overall task.'

Other exoskeletons can eliminate or alleviate the weight and potential ergonomic issues of holding and working with tools.

Exoskeleton Report divides work and industry exoskeletons into six categories, with 'supernumerary/additional robotics,' 'powered gloves' and 'tool holding' among them. The other three categories are 'back support,' 'full body powered suits' and 'chairless chairs,' which are worn on top of work pants and 'can decrease fatigue while crouching or standing in the same position for an extended period,' the website states.

Chris Reid, human factors and ergonomics engineer at Boeing and HFE Subcommittee chair for Committee F48, said Boeing began evaluating exoskeleton technology in 2012.

He said the automotive industry has been among the leading adopters, along with other labor-intensive fields such as aerospace, construction, warehousing, and oil and gas.

Experts say a greater prevalence of exoskeletons in industry could arrive in the next few years. Reid said Boeing is 'starting this year with a few pathfinder locations where we'll be rolling out larger numbers of exoskeletons to segments of the population to help work out any process or safety related bugs.'

He added: 'We want to make sure these systems will provide value to our people and facilities, so we've been very methodical in checking to make sure they are safe, effective and reliable.'

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Standard bearers

How can organizations ensure exoskeletons are being used safely? Although OSHA has indicated it's not working on any such standards, Billotte said ASTM International is scheduled to issue its voluntary standards sometime in the next couple of years.

The International Organization for Standardization, also known as ISO, published its 13482 standard on safety requirements for personal care robots and robotic devices ' a category that includes exoskeletons ' in 2014.

Billotte said some parts of the ASTM International standard will come out within the next year, and one of the first will attempt to ensure everyone is on the same page regarding terminology. Committee F48 began work in September 2017, gained ASTM International approval in October 2017 and held its first face-to-face meeting in February.

'I'm pretty confident that we'll see test methods come out in the next year, and guidelines within a two- to three-year time frame,' Billotte said.

Sugar and seven co-authors issued a white paper for Wearable Robotics Association in March that detailed hip exoskeletons. He said the organization is working on another white paper for shoulder exoskeletons. Sugar also is a member of the Committee F48 Terminology Subcommittee and one on design and manufacturing.

Among the other subjects the ASTM International standard subcommittees are tackling are task performance and environmental considerations, maintenance and disposal, and security and information technology.

With some exoskeletons possessing computerized parts, the latter consideration could prove particularly important, especially as technology advances in industries.

'As we've seen, getting hacked on your computer is a bad day for anyone,' Billotte said, 'but if you get hacked while wearing a powered exoskeleton, that might be a really bad day.'

Among the other subjects the ASTM International standard subcommittees are tackling are task performance and environmental considerations, maintenance and disposal, and security and information technology.

With some exoskeletons possessing computerized parts, the latter consideration could prove particularly important, especially as technology advances in industries.

'As we've seen, getting hacked on your computer is a bad day for anyone,' Billotte said, 'but if you get hacked while wearing a powered exoskeleton, that might be a really bad day.'

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Additional considerations

Among the other areas of concern is physical hazards. Will an exoskeleton cause user injuries such as bruising, abrasions or overextension of limbs? Will using one change the body or its structures over the short and/or long term? Could it cause a cumulative injury to one part of the body while attempting to help another? What is the best way to clean and maintain an exoskeleton?

Reid brought up other questions: How do you prepare first responders for cases in which a worker wearing the device is in an emergency situation? What about issues arising from temperature, sound and vibration, or unintentional discharges (from batteries, hydraulics or pneumatics)?

Then come the usual safety-related issues, such as slips, trips and falls, or what to do with exoskeletons in confined spaces.

Questions also have been raised about the return on investment of the devices and concerns from the workforce about the new technology.

'There's a lot to think about when putting exoskeletons on your workforce,' Billotte said. 'You will need some sort of education campaign. People will need to test out what kinds would work best at their worksite.'

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'We're not going back'

Billotte's final piece of advice echoes something that Sugar said he heard from one of the speakers at the Wearable Robotics Association's annual convention (WearRAcon) in March: Assess what tasks are ergonomically strenuous in the workplace and see if adding technology can help.

Sugar said another colleague compares the potential forthcoming use of exoskeletons to the difference between workers progressing to motorized tools from manual ones.

'We're not going back,' Sugar said. 'We're not going back to hand wrenches. So we look at it as in the future ' people aren't going to go back.'

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Source:'Safety+Health Magazine


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