If you have seen Iron Man film franchise, you’ll know that the voltage of costume gives inventor Tony Stark superhuman strength to fight the bad guys.
But away from the fictional world of blockbusting movies, robotic exoskeletons offer more prosaic and useful aid for humans.
The military has been on the law for years, using it to help soldiers carry more weight for longer periods of time. In the meantime, manufacturers have been busy with the creation of the robotics should be to give mobility to people with disabilities.
But now, the exoskeletons are becoming an important part of the scene, in more conventional workplaces, mainly due to their unique offering.
“Exoskeletons act as a bridge between fully-working manual and robotic systems. You get the brain of people in the body of a robot,” said Dan Kara, a research director at ABI Research.
“But there’s more to it than that. You can link the use of exoskeletons for the business benefits that are very easy to quantify. The main is the reduction of work-related injury, and we know that outside of the common cold, back injury is the main reason why people are off work.”
The automotive industry has used robots for many years. But the robots can’t do everything, said a technical expert Marty Smets, Ford and human systems virtual manufacturing unit.
“In our plants, we see a need for people and robots,” he says.
Some Ford assembly line workers to lift the arms up to 4 600 times per day, which represents about one million times per year. This kind of repetition leaves many suffering from back pain and neck pain.
Now, however, the company has equipped the staff to two assembly plants with a device called the EksoVest, California-based Ekso Bionics. It helps take the strain by giving workers an extra 5-15 (2.2-6.8 kg) of lift by the arm.
“Amazing is the only word to describe the jacket,” said Paul Collins, a worker at the chain at Ford Michigan assembly plant. “It has made my work much easier and gave me more energy throughout the day.”
The company says it already sees a dramatic decline in workplace accidents and is now planning to introduce the exoskeletons of facilities in Europe and South America.
Currently, the industrial use of the exoskeleton is relatively small, this year, a few thousand people have been sold, says ABI Kara. But, he said, the market potential could be in the millions.
The types of exoskeleton used for rehabilitation can cost more than $100 000(75 000 pounds), will need, as they usually do, to replace a user’s muscles completely. However, the versions can be much less expensive, around$ 5,000.
They are generally to increase the strength of human rather than replace it, and tend to reinforce one part of the body only. Often, they do not need external power. Instead, they can provide 10% to 20% boost to the user of lifting power by the transfer of weight back to the floor.
In Japan, the exoskeletons are used for the heavy lifting in the shipbuilding industry as well as in major construction projects.
During this time, the US retailer Home Depot is testing exoskeletons to help workers to unload the trucks and bring materials on the ground.
Another early adopter is Lockheed Martin, which is using its own Fortis exoskeleton to allow workers to use tools for much longer periods of time. It has a support structure that transfers the weight of heavy loads from the operator directly to the ground through a series of joints at the hips, knees and ankles.
It can also be used with an arm that supports the weight of a tool which helps to isolate vibration and torque a rotational force of the part of the user. The workers using the equipment, said Lockheed Martin, the report of the two-thirds less fatigue, better quality of work, greater productivity and fewer musculoskeletal injuries.
Other companies producing carts exoskeletons, which are rather more like the costumes for the movies. Sarcos, for example, offers three models, with the largest – the Guardian GT (photo) – the handling of more than 450 kg with 2 m (7 ft) arm.
“I think that powered exoskeletons will become ubiquitous for industrial applications in the world. These devices will significantly reduce workplace injuries while greatly improving productivity,” said ceo Ben Wolff.
“In addition, these devices can extend the useful life of the ageing of the work force, and can make jobs open to more people that previously could have been handled by people of greater physical stature.”More Technology of Business
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Other increases in technology are even more strange. Researchers at Cornell university’s Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, for example, have developed a robotic “third arm” that attaches to the user’s elbow. The group said it sees applications in the package handling, warehouses, and even restaurants.
“A third arm device would improve a worker of the scope, and allow them to access objects without having to touch or bend. This would be useful in the pick-and-place tasks where the worker is in motion, such as the recovery of packages from the warehouse shelves,” says researcher Vighnesh Vatsal.
“It would also provide support in the assembly tasks in difficult environments such as construction sites, for example, by taking a piece of stable work, so that a worker operates on it with power tools using their own hands.”
In the longer term, industry experts say that the price of exoskeletons will fall further, which means that they could move into other areas of work. They might even find their place in private life, with applications in DIY, gardening and sports such as hiking.
Thus, while we will never be likely to be able to imitate the exploits of comic book heroes, exoskeletons could help with mundane chores like ironing. So not so much the Iron Man – more “ironing man”, perhaps?Follow the Company’s Technology editor Matthew Wall on Twitter and Facebook
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