3 Opportunities in Wearable Robotics (And What It Takes To Develop Them)
How can we protect workers in manufacturing, construction, and distribution; especially young people who feel healthy, strong, and invincible? As people age, how can we amplify their ability to handle activities of daily living at home and work? How can we enable accessibility for all?
These are some of the questions addressed at the recent Wearable Robotics Association Conference (WearRAcon), drawing professionals from a worldwide range of industries, institutions and locations. Speakers and exhibitors showcased examples of wearable robotics that protect, amplify, and enable natural capabilities.
This article will provide a brief introduction to a highly-complex, diverse, and emerging industry.
We’ll discuss some opportunities, challenges, and recommendations that can be applied to product development in wearable tech across a wide array of industries.
"To protect workers from these risks, wearable robotics (often referred to as exoskeletons) have been developed to shift force-loading from more vulnerable areas of the body to less vulnerable areas."
Research has shown that workers who perform repetitive tasks, like assembly, construction, and distribution, face the risk of injury due to overexertion. Muscles in the back, shoulders, and hands are particularly vulnerable to the effects of cumulative trauma. In fact, it’s been proven that the potential for injury is greatest at the end of the workday when fatigue is greatest.
To protect workers from these risks, wearable robotics (often referred to as exoskeletons) have been developed to shift force-loading from more vulnerable areas of the body to less vulnerable areas. There is a variety of different exoskeleton types. Passive and active exoskeletons integrate soft good components and hardware to suit the needs of users in specific applications. Passive, or non-powered exoskeletons, use springs to store energy and reduce loads on targeted muscle groups. Active exoskeletons are powered, integrating motors, batteries, and sensors. Many of these devices look and feel like specialty backpacks.
Automotive companies are cautiously optimistic about results from in-plant evaluations of passive exoskeletons. For example, Toyota recently mandated that some jobs, like overhead assembly and painting, require exoskeletons as Personal Protective Equipment to reduce the possibility of shoulder injury, surgery, rehab, lost time, and associated costs.
However, younger workers don’t want to be encumbered by exoskeletons. Associates view their tasks like a healthy workout, and their employers regard them as “working athletes,” underestimating the long-term risk for injury as they age. With this in mind, key challenges include reductions in weight, thermal discomfort, and limitations to natural range of motion, to counter psychosocial factors that affect safety compliance. Also, it certainly doesn’t help that fewer nerves in the spine makes it difficult for a worker to tell when they’re injuring themselves, whether they wear an exoskeleton or not. The most-successful exoskeletons balance competing functional priorities so the trade-off for wearing one is justified by avoiding the pain and cost of not.
One of the greatest industries in need of protection lies in healthcare. Nurses are particularly susceptible to lower back injury from patient transfers. Although lift systems are used in clinical environments, they can’t be everywhere they’re needed. When they are needed, they can’t always deliver assistance as quickly as required. Some nurses simply can’t wait to have a second person assist them in a safe transfer. Therefore, an exoskeleton could help to reduce peak force on the lower back, distributing some to the hips during pushing and pulling.
"Key challenges include reductions in weight, thermal discomfort, and limitations to natural range of motion."
Insurance companies have taken note of these developments as related to tasks covered by exoskeletons with measured reductions in injury. Ergonomists and researchers use Electromyography (EMG) instrumentation and motion capture systems to measure fatigue threshold. Comparisons with and without assistive devices reveal “metabolic cost.” Specifically, some overhead tasks with shoulder-assist exoskeletons in the automotive industry have shown a significant 16% reduction in Maximum Voluntary Contraction (MVIC) of the Deltoid muscle. This translates to decreased upper limb localized fatigue. As a result, a significant amount of effort and funding has been, and continues to be, poured into these safety tech opportunities.
Designing exoskeletons to protect and encourage compliance for specific workers’ needs can help reduce the risk of injury from repetitive tasks.
The natural degradation of muscle strength effects everyone as they age. Baby Boomers represent an emerging segment of those wishing to live in their homes with autonomy. To address this need, some startups are creating powered robotic exosuits that augment natural capabilities. These devices can help assist people with sitting, standing, and managing stairs. This is an example of active exoskeletons that use electro-mechanical systems to sense interaction and deliver force multiplication appropriately. As a result, these complex wearables are expensive, but their potential is significant. The hope is that adapting soft goods exoskeletons for a mass market could leverage economy of scale to reduce cost.
Some active exoskeletons are being tested by the military to augment soldier strength, endurance, and speed. Similar devices are being evaluated in some industries to help workers be more productive by helping them lift more or perform tasks longer. The prohibitively-high cost of these devices has limited wide adoption.
Designing electromechanical soft robotics at scale that amplify the wearer’s natural capabilities could lead to higher adoption with more-manageable cost.
People requiring physical therapy or challenged with ability limitations would drastically benefit from devices that improve accessibility. For example, some active exoskeletons help to stabilize gait by sensing movement and providing power when and where needed for ambulation.
In the care-receiving realm of healthcare, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates wearable robotics used for rehabilitation, prosthetics and orthotics, and spinal cord injury or stroke patients. As the significance of risk increases, so does regulatory oversight. For example, an orthotic limb brace is considered a Class I medical device, while an EMG-triggered powered elbow brace falls in Class II. Also, Quality Systems Regulations add to the development and execution burden, further increasing complexity and cost.
Wearable robotics have the potential to enable people challenged with mobility issues to have similar accessibility to those that aren’t.
What Does It Take to Develop Wearable Robotics?
To bring the benefits of wearable robotics to reality, and to mitigate their challenges, product development needs to leverage a wide array of specialists. Each group brings a unique value to the project:
- Engineers handle force multiplication and data management.
- Industrial Designers address psychosocial factors and interaction.
- Human Factors experts accommodate the wide range of users and usability issues.
- Soft Goods and Prototyping experts fabricate wearable solutions.
- Researchers use prototypes to test concepts with end users.
- UX and UI experts develop visual and audio feedback that incentivize wearers to stay engaged with tasks and wellness.
While contemplating evolving opportunities in this space, keep in mind the potential for helping specific users with their specific needs. To name a few, think about protecting nurses in healthcare, amplifying the stability of the aging, and enabling those recovering from injury with greater accessibility.
While it’s clear that there are a number of significant barriers of entry into the wearable robotic market, the opportunity to address significant human needs is immense. We’ve reached an exciting inflection point where sensors, mechanics, materials, and personalization can be integrated in wearable robotics to protect, amplify, and enable natural capabilities.
At Priority Designs, we’ve had the opportunity to leverage these capabilities on a number of client projects that include wearables; from football knee braces and healthcare apparel, to powered soft robotics for manufacturing. We’ve used motion capture to study the kinematics of athletes to use data to drive design decision-making in optimizing gear performance, accuracy, and durability. Our ISO 13485 certification helps us with Quality Management System compliance for medical applications.
About The Author
Jeff Burger, Sr. Industrial Designer
Jeff is driven by learning something new every day. He applies research, strategy and an ergonomics expertise in the categories of medical, industrial and consumer products. In normal day-to-day conversation, you may also hear him using strange sound effects to “make a point”, which he says is a more effective means of communication!