Exoskeleton suits are gaining use in Construction. Designed as a wearable machine with motorised joints to minimise strain and injury, they also provide posture correction, support and weight disbursement whilst giving the user super human strength. Traditionally used as a rehabilitation tool, they are increasingly being used in manufacturing and production.
More contractors than ever before are now confident that that wearable technology will improve the industry in terms of growth, production and safety.
Research indicates that 23% of contractors believe that they will adopt wearable technology over the next 3 years, whilst three quarters believe onsite safety will be improved. 1 in 3 contractors also believe that wearable technology can improve labour productivity.
Exoskeletons come in many forms and can either be purely mechanical or operate with a mix of mechanics and electricity. Depending on the intended function of the machine, the suits can be made of either a hard material like metal or a soft material such as textile.
Mechanical Exoskeletons – These require no power source which makes them a favoured option in the field. Most of them redistribute weight from one area of the body to another, such as taking weight from the arm and shoulder and placing it on the core or waist to reduce strain and fatigue.
Partial or fully electric exoskeletons – These require a power source but are typically more powerful than the mechanical type and can take on more weight. They have the ability to target more specific areas and increase strength and pressure where needed such as a hand held power tool.
To combat strain injuries caused by the common everyday tasks that workers in construction face, exoskeletons can decrease pressure on the spine and reduce fatigue. They can also aid workers who are limited by age and physical capabilities meaning that there are more employment opportunities.
Types of Exoskeletons used in Construction
Power gloves – These fit around the hand to improve grip and dexterity
fit around the hand to improve dexterity for those who experience weakness or other issues with grasping tools and materials. Improved grip is helpful when carrying heavy hand tools or picking up objects.
Gloves such as “The Ironhand” from Bioservo detect the user’s natural movement via sensors. The glove is able to increase power based on the user’s movements, so if the user increases pressure in the handle, the glove increases power based on the object’s weight. Inbuilt sensors also collect data to assess situations where the user’s grip poses an ergonomic threat to them.
Arm and Shoulder Supports
The design of these exosuits provides support for users who are lifting heavy tools and materials above waist height. Tasks such as drilling, cutting and grinding can cause strain by having to hold heavy equipment for long periods of time, so these exosuits are ideal for supporting shoulders and arms.
Suits like the EKSO BIONICS “Eksovest” use springs in both arms to give more power when lifting heavy objects whilst the “Airframe Exoskeleton” uses a pully system to achieve the same task. “Shoulder X” also uses springs to support the shoulder and in common with the other suits, they are all lightweight, low profile and do not get in the way of the user’s mobility.
Back support exosuits are usually designed to fit around the shoulders, back and waist to provide support to the spine and reduce stress on the back from lifting heavy objects. Some back support suits even correct the posture when bending and lifting to avoid stress to the back.
The “V22 ErgoSkeleton” from Strong Arm Tech acts as a “trainer” and collects information to feedback to the user when their posture is not in the correct position to lift heavy objects. The design focuses more on reducing stress on the back and spine.
Standing and crouching support
These suits work to reduce pressure on the knees and legs and distribute weight down to the ground by locking in place. This helps to reduce strain on joints when standing or crouching for long periods of time.
Users also have the option to “sit” when there are no available chairs or in situations when standing would possibly impede safety or productivity in the work area. This is useful for workers who spend much of their work day standing.
The Chairless Chair 2.0 from Noonee introduces improvements from their previous model including a decrease in the product’s overall weight and updated materials for comfort and breathability. The legX from suitX is compatible with tool belts and offers custom work boots for added comfort. Both products recognize when a user is walking, crouching and standing and adjusts accordingly.
Whole Body Suits
As the name suggests, whole-body suits are designed to support the whole body and minimise strain, whilst maximising productivity and enhance strength. Whole body suits can be either mechanical or electrical, depending on the manufacturer.
Due to launch imminently, the Sarcos “Guardian XO” is the newest whole-body electric suit. A single charge delivers up to 8 hours of usage and only requires 400 watts of power to operate using a normal walking pace. Users have the ability to “hot-swap” batteries without the suit losing any power.
The design boasts human intelligence combined with instinct and judgement with power, endurance and the precision of machines. Features include a “hands free” mode which allows the operator to lock the suit’s arms and simultaneously complete dexterous tasks requiring human hands, while carrying a heavy load, a highly responsive control system enables the operator to fluidly execute fall-prevention motions such as stumble-recovery and 24 Degrees of Freedom (DOFs) which allows the operator to move freely and naturally in unstructured environments where larger machinery is unable to access. All this in a suit that can be donned unassisted in 30 seconds!
There is no doubt that robots will feature increasingly in construction over the next decade. The question is…can we keep up with the robots?