Lift and carry is one of the most common causes for back injury. Theory states that as long as a person maintains constant proper technique, they should not experience any back pain.
The problem occurs when you fall out of good form because of fatigue or lifting a load that causes too high a demand on the back muscles. Likewise, back injuries can be exacerbated when regularly working in a forward bending position. This is unavoidable in a multitude of professions, for example, during order picking or any other warehousing function that requires frequently repeated movements for an extended period of time. Because of the dynamic nature of warehouse work, lower back pain is prevalent.
Thanks to technological advances, exoskeletons have arrived to help minimize the risk of injury. There are two different classes of exoskeleton: powered and passive; we’ll be reviewing the latter. A passive exoskeleton is like an external full-body harness that wraps around the user’s
legs torso, and arms. It’s designed to transfer the energy of the wearer’s movement more effectively using carbon-fiber trusses and motors. Workers are able to manipulate heavy objects using a fraction of the typical energy. Put simply, Exoskeletons allow you to carry more without feeling the weight.
No longer just for military use, the exoskeletons of today are light weight, easy to wear, and reduce muscle strain significantly. A preliminary study by exoskeleton provider Laevo, has shown a 40% reduction in the activation of the back muscles while wearing an exoskeleton. The study monitored the activation of the two major lower back muscles (the Erector Spinae Iliocostalis and Erector Spinae Longissimus) using Electromyography (EMG)
Hardware chain Lowe’s is outfitting employees with a passive exoskeleton to help them on the job.
It’s intended to help workers offset some of the strain on their muscles and joints, as they spend large portions of their days picking up and moving heavy and awkward items, such as bags of cement, or 5-gallon buckets of paint. Lowe’s exo-suits are, for now, just a test to see if they will in fact aid the average worker and relieve some of the more menial and physical aspects of their job. “It feels very natural,” says Kyle Nel, the director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs, “When the person is walking and bends down to pick something up, the rods collect potential energy. And when they stand back up it puts that energy back into their legs and back. It’s very smooth, and it feels like this heavy thing [they’re lifting] is much less heavy.”
The point of these exoskeletons is to augment humans where they are weak. “It’s not about making workers superman,” says Homayoon Kazerooni, a University of California robotics professor who has worked with a number of exoskeleton companies. “We want to eliminate the pain of the physical labor of these guys.”
The market is finally growing as well after years relying on military and medical insurance companies. “The big trend now is moving into the commercial space,” says Dan Kara of ABI Research. ABI expects to see that the market for exoskeletons exceed a billion dollars within the decade, up from about $100 million last year. Although just a sliver of the market today, ABI expects the construction, manufacturing, demolition and logistics industries to represent almost half the industry revenue within eight years.
Today, there are 53 or so exoskeleton companies such as Ekso Bionics and Laevo that offer lightweight passive designs using metal and carbon-fiber frames that attach to the body or exterior scaffolding for construction and logistics workers. Pricing, on average, falls somewhere between $2,000 and $11,000.