Ford Motor Company workers at two US manufacturing plants are trying out an exoskeleton device that reduces the risk of injury from performing repetitive, manual tasks like fitting components overhead. It’s a far cry from the big, full-body Caterpillar P-5000 Powered Work Loader that Sigourney Weaver so expertly wielded to combat a Xenomorph Queen in James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), but it could help lessen the physical toll of assembly line work.
It’s called the “EksoVest”, and it’s the product of California-based company Ekso Bionics. Designed specially for workplaces like factories, construction sites, and distribution centers, the wearable vest isn’t powered, but it provides adjustable lift assistance ranging from 5 to 15 pounds. It’s lightweight, not too cumbersome, and can accommodate workers from 5 feet to 6 feet, 4 inches in stature.
As of now, the EksoVest is being given a trial run at two assembly plants in the United States, with support from the United Auto Workers union. There are plans to test the exoskeleton device in other regions in the future, as well, including South America and Europe.
“My job entails working over my head, so when I get home my back, neck and shoulders usually hurt,” says an assembly line worker at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant, Paul Collins. “Since I started using the vest, I’m not as sore, and I have more energy to play with my grandsons when I get home.”
Some Ford plant workers like Collins have to lift their arms approximately 4,600 times per day, on average – about a million times each year. It’s easy to see how, with so many repetitions, the occasional injury is all but inevitable without help from an exoskeleton device.
“Our goal has always been to keep the work environment safe and productive for the hardworking men and women we rely on across the globe,” says Ford VP of Manufacturing and Labor Affairs Bruce Hettle. “Investing in the latest ergonomics research, assembly improvements and lift-assist technologies has helped us design efficient and safe assembly lines, while maintaining high vehicle quality for our customers.”