Industrial Workers Will Soon Don Exoskeletons and Achieve Super Strength
What’s the most important thing for people to know about the full-body exoskeleton from Sarcos Robotics, which can turn an assembly-line worker into a superhero? “We’re taking orders,” says Sarcos CEO Ben Wolff.
The company has been working on this wearable robotics technology since 2000, when engineers in its Salt Lake City headquarters began cobbling together experimental supersoldier suits for the U.S. military. A 2010 proto type, which enabled the wearer to punch through wooden boards, earned the nickname “the Iron Man suit” in homage to the high-tech gear in the eponymous comic book and movies. But that bulky version kept the user tethered to the wall by a power cord—something that would presumably interfere with superhero activities—and the suit remained in R&D.
Now, finally, Sarcos is coming out with a commercial exoskeleton: the Guardian XO. Wolff says the sleek battery-powered suit will be ready at the end of 2019. It’s intended not for the battlefield but rather for industrial settings such as factory floors, construction sites, and mines, where it can provide a substantial return on investment by boosting worker productivity and decreasing injuries.
Wolff says his engineering team made breakthroughs in power management that enabled them to build a practical and reasonably priced suit. “It’s one thing to make a very expensive robot in the lab,” Wolff says. “We’re finally at the point where the exoskeleton’s capabilities coupled with the economics make it a viable product.”
The XO will be available in two models: Workers wearing the basic XO will be able to repeatedly hoist 35 kilograms without strain, while those wearing the heavy-duty XO-Max will easily lift a 90-kg load. Each model has a battery that lasts for up to 8 hours and can be quickly swapped out.
Sarcos isn’t the only company building wearables to augment the strength and endurance of industrial workers. Ekso Bionics, a California company best known for its medical-grade exoskeletons that enable paraplegics to walk, recently came out with the EksoVest, an upper-body exoskeleton that supports workers’ arms as they perform overhead tasks. In 2017, Ekso began a pilot project with Ford Motor Co., and last year Ford expanded the trial to 15 factories around the world.
The time may now be right for exoskeletons to proliferate in the workplace, says Rian Whitton, an analyst with ABI Research who recently authored a report on the exoskeleton market. As the technology has matured over the past decade, he says, market conditions have become more favorable. “In the Western world and Japan, we’re seeing a tightening of the labor market, especially when it comes to manufacturing,” Whitton says. “There’s a real incentive for companies to invest in their workforce and make people on the assembly line more productive.”
The recent engineering advances in the Sarcos lab came from studying the human body’s energy-conservation strategies. Consider the biomechanics of walking, for example. Not every muscle requires energy at every moment; there are parts of each step where gravity does the work. Translating that lesson to an exoskeleton, Wolff says, means the suit doesn’t have to power up every joint continuously, and that means a longer battery life.
Sarcos didn’t design the XO for any particular application, but rather wanted to help people perform all manner of tasks. A user manages an XO via a system that Wolff calls “get-out-of-the-way control.” Sensors throughout the suit recognize how the wearer is moving his or her limbs, enabling the suit to instantly mimic the speed, force, and direction of these movements. “The suit moves along with you; you don’t have to think about how to use it,” Wolff says.
While industrial exoskeletons are designed to protect their users, potential buyers may have other safety concerns. At the standards organization ASTM International, Bill Billotte is vice chairman of a committee that’s working on standards for exoskeletons. He says employers will need to think through some of the same questions that arose when collaborative robots started appearing on assembly lines. “If you have one person wearing an exoskeleton, but they’re working next to other people who are not wearing exoskeletons, how do you make that work?” he says.
Companies that are ready to put their money down anyway will be signing on for a “robot as a service” package, in which Sarcos will deliver the Guardian XOs, install the docking stations, and frequently visit the client’s facility for suit maintenance, repairs, and upgrades. The cost of an XO package, Wolff says, “is roughly the equivalent to a fully loaded, all costs included, $25 per hour employee.” Wolff argues that companies will save money by investing in XOs, claiming that an exoskeleton will improve a worker’s productivity by four to eight times, and will reduce injuries to boot. His message to manufacturing companies: “Think about putting this robot on your payroll.”
This article appears in the January 2019 print issue as ““Iron Man” Suits Are Coming to Factory Floors.”