Companies developing exoskeletons for either military or medical purposes have been around for more than a decade, but they’ve also found new applications in the industrial market as costs have come down and technology advanced.
One of the leaders in this space is Ekso Bionics, which develops exoskeletons for both medical and industrial applications, through its EksoGT and EksoVest offerings, respectively. The company also develops the EksoZeroG, exoskeleton technology that helps ease the physical burden on construction and demolition workers.
Last year, the company announced partnering with Ford on providing EksoVest equipment to assembly line workers to help elevate and support their arms. The vest is optimized to support the weight of the worker’s arms so any overhead work puts less of a strain on their shoulders and arms, with five to 15 pounds of lift assistance per harm when the vest’s springs are activated. “As a result, the worker will get a noticeable level of support for overhead tasks that require either no tools at all, or tasks requiring tools that weigh up to approximately 8 pounds,” the company said.
Robotics Business Review recently spoke with Jack Peurach, the president, CEO, and director of Ekso Bionics, about the early days of the company, its transition to medical and industrial applications, and how the technology is set to accelerate in the next decade.
Starting with military applications
Q: Ekso has been around for more than a decade, but take us back to the early days and the goals of the company when it was founded.
Peurach: The company was founded in 2005 as a spinout from UC-Berkeley, which was doing a lot of very pioneering work in wearable robotics, primarily for military use and advanced soldier capabilities – carrying heavy payloads, extending endurance, etc. We spun the company out of Berkeley and formed it with the idea of commercializing the technology without necessarily a specific focused industry.
We generally focused on the technology but also started to work a lot in the military space, doing military contracting work and R&D. Eventually we developed a relationship with Lockheed Martin on the military side where they would have exclusivity for military applications, and we would support them with technology that allowed our company to focus more on non-military applications, such as medical and industrial.
So then we started working on machines or robots that would allow paraplegics initially to walk, which became a very high profile use of the technology. But it also got us started down the medical path. It was probably around 2012 when the first paraplegics were walking in our device, and in 2012 when we started selling those systems. We also started to see that our customers were neurological rehabilitation centers primarily wanting to use our product for a lot of other conditions, not just for paraplegics. So we began to provide different types of therapy and algorithms to allow variable types of power to support the patient the way they needed to for their specific conditions.
We really started to invest in the marriage between robotics and physical therapy/rehabilitation and built a very purposeful product to provide this unique rehabilitative care. We developed a lot of variable assist and mechanisms to allow the machine to do things that are necessary for rehabilitation, especially with someone who may be fine on one side and have a stroke-related impairment on the other side. So the robot is able to adapt and provide assistance when needed, but not when it’s not needed, and do different things. So that allowed us to develop a lot of the pioneering work in robotic rehabilitation that ultimately got introduced into our product and has gotten us to where we are now.
Adding industrial uses for exoskeletons
Q: So how did the company then get involved with the industrial side of exoskeleton development?
Peurach: We work in a lot of different ways on industrial products, and a lot of the military work had industrial applications. But it was really difficult to find a scalable market opportunity on the industrial side – we had lower leg robotics and tool-holding machines and all kinds of things that would allow workers to do things they couldn’t do, but the size of the opportunities back then were small.
Then about three years ago we started working on an upper arm wearable robotics system that was very simple to provide enough assistance to a worker so they can reduce their injury rate, or allow them to work for a longer period of time without resting. We developed a product and acquired a product as a first step, and then developed the EksoVest, which is used at Ford. It’s a wearable vest that gives support to a worker’s arms when they’re doing overhead work. We released that in 2018, and it’s been out for more than a year. We’ve been very fortunate to get some very large customers using and adopting that product.
Q: How has the reaction been to the vest once it was deployed?
Peurach: It’s hard to tell exactly how something like that would be adopted. But what we’ve seen is, first of all, there was a tremendous amount of interest. Customers will get a couple of them to quantify and understand the benefits, get user feedback, and then they’ll deploy in one specific manufacturing area. Then eventually they’ll start to go into broader adoption. We’ve been working with a number of companies that are in that internal-to-them adoption cycle.
Q: When Ford approached you, did you know that you were going to develop a vest, or was it more like, ‘We’re looking for something to help workers because they’re always installing things with their arms up in the air?’
Peurach: We had the idea, they had an idea of something also. We brought them a product that was not ready to be released yet and worked with them on refining the product. So they were a very great early customer for us in terms of being patient and giving us great feedback, telling us what was important to them and what wasn’t, so we could get that product to a place that met the needs they wanted it to meet.
Q: What are the next steps for the vest? Does Ford have this exclusively, or can you market this to other auto manufacturers or other companies?
Peurach: It’s not an exclusive relationship with Ford, but they are continuing to test it, trialing it in about 15 different plants around the world. We’ve also been working with a number of different companies, but we’re not at liberty to disclose those other companies unfortunately. But similar to Ford, they are at that stage of adopting and piloting the products.
Q: We’ve read market research and seen reports that are predicting that over the next five years that industrial and manufacturing interest in exoskeleton and wearable robotics will really start accelerating. I would imagine that you’re encouraged by those predictions, but you’re also at the forefront of it. Why do you think industrial companies are suddenly interested in these technologies?
Peurach: It’s a pretty compelling proposition for companies. It might be viewed as expensive now, but they’re going to come down in cost as volume increases and technology advances. So it’s a relatively small investment. The benefits can be significant in terms of reduced injury rates and improved worker satisfaction, and quality of life for the worker.
For example, a worker doing overhead work – you get to the end of the day and you’re pretty wiped out. If you do that for a long time, you end up having all kinds of structural problems with your body. So that’s Ford’s focus – other companies are focused more on productivity. There tends to be a very quick payback on technology. I think the reason there’s demand and excitement around it is that it’s able to deliver some pretty great economic returns in a relatively short period of time, and address the problems in an obvious way.
Multiple challenges ahead
Q: What are some of the challenges that the company is still facing? Technology improvements? Getting the costs down? Government regulation issues? What challenges do you have to get to the point where the market accelerates?
Peurach: We’re involved in two parts of the exoskeleton market – the medical and rehabilitation side, and the industrial side of it. On the medical side, it represents the majority of our revenue by far, and we’re on a decent growth rate, and we’re going to continue to see that and increasing adoption of that technology. So we should see growth rates and certainly for units, start to accelerate as we get further down the adoption curve on the medical side. When that happens, all other good things come along with it.
I was meeting a customer recently and they said it wasn’t just the product that makes this work – it’s the product and all the other things that come along with it – training and service and the rehab program that we’re providing. Everything has to progress in order to advance this technology in this specific application. Because it’s medical related there are a bunch of regulations, and for good reason. So on the medical side, the adoption curve is progressing in a great and maybe even predictable way.
On the industrial side, that’s where I see a lot of different options in terms of how this market is going to evolve. When you think about our industrial product, there are vast number of applications and uses for it in a particular segment, and the challenge is channel access when you go to market. How do you get to all the customers to benefit from it? How do you even identify the applications that exist?
So you kind of chip away, starting at the first one and then go to the next one, etc. The challenge on the industrial side is going to be around identification of applications and channel access. I think there’s going to be a lot of product specialization around different applications with unique requirements and rapid product cycles. There’s going to be more competition and more opportunities to advance product more quickly, and more pressure too, so that will drive a lot of other innovation and interest. So those are two very different markets, but I think they’re both really poised to grow fairly strong.
Q: Is there one segment that you’re more excited about than the other, or are you excited equally about both markets?
Peurach: I’m equally excited about both. There’s nothing that gets you up in the morning more than understanding what our product does. On the medical side, we spent some time in a rehab facility and you see the benefits in the impact that it has on somebody’s life. It sort of starts to overshadow a lot of stuff, and may be irrational from a business perspective. But we are mission-driven in many ways in that part of our business, and that’s built into a lot of the people that work here, and it’s really important to us. So I love that part of the business. But I also love the industrial opportunity and the wide-open blue sky situation we’re in.
Q: What fascinates us about the company is how you started working with soldiers and military applications, then moved into the medical space, and now you’re tackling industrial opportunities. If you look back to the beginning of the company, did you ever think you would be where you are almost 14 years later?
Peurach: Yeah, we did, but I would also say it’s taken a lot longer than I thought it would. I think we all saw in the early days – this is just the basic technology, the ability to augment human capabilities somehow with robotics or intelligent products. It’s got a tremendous opportunity. So no, it’s not a surprise to me, but I wish it would happen faster.