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How Exoskeleton Technology is Helping Transform Construction and Industrial Work

I have long been fascinated by robots and other technologies that help expand the tasks and activities that can be performed by human beings. What once was science fiction is now being used  in hospitals, in factories and on construction sites. During a session at Oracle Industry Connect 2018, Russ Angold of EksoWorks will explore the evolution of exoskeleton technology and the applications and use cases for such innovative technology in several sectors, where exoskeletons are improving productivity, quality and safety, and helping to extend workers’ careers.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Russ to discuss his interest in exoskeleton technology and how his company is making a difference in industrial and other settings today.

Burcin: How did you develop an interest in robotics and exoskeletons?

Russ: It all goes back to when I was a kid. When I would get toys for Christmas, I would tear them apart and then put them together again. I’ve always been curious about how things work. I also did some construction work in high school and college summers, and after earning my engineering degree, I went straight into robotics. And then in 2004, I got a chance to work on a project for DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), in which they were funding an exoskeleton for soldier load carriage. As soon as I saw the video for the project, I was hooked – it was just cool technology.

Burcin: What are commercial exoskeletons and how do they work?

Russ: Think of it as a wearable robot. Some are powered, some are passive, but it’s basically a structure that goes around the human body and provides some sort of augmentation. That could be on the medical side, for people who have lost abilities – for example, due to stroke or spinal cord injury –enabling them to stand up and walk again. In addition, in the construction or industrial environment, we’re thinking about how to give someone unlimited endurance or greatly enhance their strength. We’re trying to help workers perform tasks that are hard. Whether it’s operating heavy tools or working overhead or moving stuff around, we think there are a lot of applications there for exoskeletons. And eventually we see this moving into the consumer space as well, helping augment capabilities to keep people active.

Burcin: Can you describe some current use cases for exoskeletons in the industrial/construction world?

Russ: So we first launched our medical exoskeleton in 2012, and then about three years ago, we started seeing a lot of inquiries from the industrial/construction sector, saying: “Hey, if you can help someone who is paralyzed get up and walk again, why don’t we have exoskeletons on the jobsite?” So we started surveying companies to understand their needs, and what came back were three things people were really interested in. Number one, safety; how do we keep our workers safe? Number two was productivity; how do we keep workers productive on the job and keep projects on schedule? And the last one was the aging population. The entire workforce getting older and staying on the job longer, so how do you keep them healthy and able to work out in the field longer? And so we started looking at applications around those areas. One of our products is the zeroG Arm (check out this video to see it in action – ed.), which helps workers using heavy tools. On one jobsite, the zeroG Arm increased the number of overhead holes a worker could drill in a day from 80 to 400 – and still end the day feeling good. In addition, our EksoVest is being used by companies like Ford Motor Co. for assembly-type applications – enabling workers to perform overhead tasks without causing fatigue and injury.

Burcin: In light of workforce changes and productivity demands, is it likely we will see robots taking over jobs currently performed by human workers in construction?

Russ: If you look at the past 20 years and examine productivity in manufacturing versus construction, there’s a marked difference. It’s almost doubled in manufacturing, while in construction it’s stayed relatively flat. And I think that’s because in manufacturing, you have a known environment. It’s a factory; you can put a robot in and it can do the same task every day. It’s not using any intelligence; it’s just repeating the same process over and over again. But if you look at the construction job site today, it’s very dynamic – the environment changes every day. You’re adding walls, you’re adding floors, so it’s a very complex environment to navigate for robots. And the work that’s being done is very decision-intensive. Workers are constantly making decisions about how to do the next thing, how to do it right. So I think we’re decades away from anything close to a robot replacing that skilled worker. And what we’re trying to do with exoskeletons is to take that skilled worker’s experience and knowledge and leverage it with robotic enhancement so you get the best of both worlds. You get the human intelligence with the robotic endurance, and everyone wins.

Russ will explore these and other ideas at length during a session at next year’s Oracle Industry Connect titled Better, Stronger, Faster: The Evolution and Applications of Exoskeleton Technology.” Registration for the exclusive event, to be held April 10-11 in New York City, is now open. Visit the Oracle Industry Connect site to learn more about the Construction and Engineering program and to register today.

Read insights from the Oracle Industry Connect 2018 report here.

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