What Is an Exoskeleton?

Exoskeletons—what they do, how they work, and their rapid ascension to becoming one of the most innovative developments in human augmentation history.

Human Augmentation—A Brief, Brief History:

For over two million years, humans have been using tools to enhance, or augment, their physical and biological capabilities. From wielding a stone to crack open fruit, to using a smartphone to access information and connect with people from all over the world, the purpose behind these devices has, in general, always been the same—to make an aspect of our lives easier, simpler, better.

One of the most innovative, and exciting, human augmentation developments in recent years has been bionic exoskeletons. Contrary to robotics, which is the application of engineering towards replacing humans from manual tasks, exoskeletons are wearable devices that work in tandem with the user, acting as amplifiers that augment, reinforce, and/or restore human performance.

Today, bionic exoskeletons are being rapidly developed and deployed to help overcome injuries or enhance the biological capacities to extend the period of active life into old age. In fact, the number of exoskeletons being used globally is expected to grow sevenfold over the next decade—from 93,000 units in 2022, to 719,000 in 2030 (ABI Research). To understand the reasons behind this rapid growth in the development of exoskeletons, it’s important to know what they do and how they work.

What Do Exoskeletons Do / How Do They Work?

Exoskeletons can serve several purposes. But mainly they solve very specific problems regarding the limitations of the human body—primarily for the lower back and shoulders—whether providing rehabilitation after injury, enhancements in strength, or the prevention of workplace injuries.

For example, in healthcare, exoskeletons may assist patients suffering from lower body injuries to walk again. Or they may provide extra support for medical staff to maneuver their patients more safely and easily. Similarly, in industrial settings, an exoskeleton may offer lifting support, or assistance in the performance of repetitive tasks.

The materials used to make exoskeletons, and their overall design, can also vary depending on the device’s purpose. An exoskeleton’s structure can range from a full-body suit—powered by batteries and motors and made of rigid materials like metal or carbon fiber—to an apparatus run by springs and dampers, connected to the upper extremities and made entirely of soft and elastic parts.

What Types of Exoskeletons Are Used in Industrial Settings?

Such varying designs and purposes have produced not just one but many types of exoskeletons, each uniquely engineered to serve and adapt to the needs of the environment in which they’re utilized. For exoskeletons used in the industrial setting, these types can be organized into three main categories:

1.      Passive exoskeletons

  • Purely mechanical structures which support the user with lifting motions via the force of springs and dampers
  • Tend to be less costly and lighter in weight than powered exoskeletons

2.      Powered (or “active”) exoskeletons

  • Combine mechanical structures with robotic technology, especially designed for high intensity and high repetition lifting tasks that place a significant strain on the lower back, specifically in large-scale distribution and logistics
  • More complex and sophisticated structures than passive exoskeletons, typically equipped with batteries, sensor-based controls, and actuators to provide lift compensation when needed, and free movement/flexibility when not needed

3.      Connected exoskeletons

  • Exoskeletons that capture, transmit, and analyze data which may help improve operations and ultimately create higher quality product flow and processes
  • Enable companies to gain instant access to notifications and improvements at various levels within the organization
  • Provide customers with important information about the human element of their operations, such as in logistics environments

What Are the Advantages of Exoskeletons?

Since the fundamental design of exoskeletons is to enhance or augment a person’s biological and physical capabilities, it’s no surprise that their implementation provides numerous advantages.

Advantages for The User

On the user level, as previously mentioned, exoskeletons can assist people who are recovering from injuries. They can also alleviate the burden of repetitive work, reduce fatigue and shoulder and back muscle strain, as well as work-related injuries to the neck, shoulder, and back. They’ve even been proven to decrease risk factors associated with musculoskeletal disorders by mechanically ensuring correct postures, alleviating the muscles groups and tendons around joints, and reducing the rate of general fatigue.

With powered exoskeleton suits, workers can handle bulky, heavy loads for palletizing minimizing the risk of injury to their backs. Additionally, research shows that users who wear exoskeleton suits are at reduced risk of severe injuries from workplace accidents or overwork, thereby giving them the chance to remain more physically and emotionally healthy into retirement.

Advantages for The Organization

But the advantages of exoskeletons stretch even farther than the individual, benefiting not just the user but the entire organization in which they’re utilized. For instance, exoskeletons help make the workplace a safer environment, resulting in fewer injuries, improved health and wellbeing, and higher morale among workers (not to mention better staffing recruitment and retention). In turn, this increases workplace safety overall, thereby significantly reducing the costs associated with work-related accidents.

Furthermore, with the logistics data that connected exoskeletons can gather and provide, they enable organizations to maintain higher consistency and quality management, operate more efficiently (which lowers cost of production), and, overall, boost productivity.

Common Misconceptions of Exoskeletons

As with most innovative and highly modern, or futuristic, developments, their purpose is often largely misunderstood by the public—especially during early stages of development—which often leads to misconceptions. Exoskeletons are no exception.  Some common misconceptions include the following (accompanied with remediations):

  • “Robots are taking over.”
    • Remediation: Exoskeletons preserve and prolong peoples’ functions and roles in the workplace, benefiting the talent they already have, while reducing the injury risk.
  • “Exoskeletons are bad for your body/cause muscular degeneration.”
    • Remediation: Exoskeleton users will not lose muscle from wearing a device, as they are still using their hands, arms, and other muscles to carry the weight when performing lifts. The device is simply reducing the strain of the lower back and/or shoulders—i.e., the parts of the body which are among the highest causes of injury in the workplace.
  • “Exoskeletons are going to control me/my movements.”
    • Remediation: Most exoskeleton devices (including those at German Bionic) are designed to follow (“work in tandem with”) the user and activate based on their movements. In other words, when the user goes, the device goes; when the user stops, the device stops. It will not twitch or move unexpectedly; everything it does it does only by the initiation of the user. Put simply: you’re in control.

A Future With Exoskeletons

Exoskeletons remain a recent, and admittedly newfangled, innovation, partly because their design seems more contrived from science fiction than reality, and partly because many people just aren’t aware of what they do, or that they exist at all. And yet, for the lives and companies that do use them, they’re making real, positive, even life-changing impact. As exoskeletons become more commonplace, their utilization will be better understood, and the more widespread and felt their benefits will become.

To learn more about exoskeletons, their uses, and a highlight of exoskeleton companies in the market, check out our whitepaper: Bionic Exoskeletons.

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