Exoskeletons are perhaps best known for improving mobility among paraplegics. However, they are developing and are becoming increasingly useful for jobs as varied as farmers, welders, and soldiers.
Lightening physical workloads has become an issue in labor relations, especially in Northwestern Europe. Ergonomics and shorter working hours play their part, but exoskeletons have become an important alternative.
Mainly used to restore or improve people’s ability to walk or to lift normal objects, exoskeletons are finding broader applications in industries such as construction and warehousing.
Exoskeletons have also become much more sophisticated. Initially, they were no more than high-precision braces, but advances in robotics, materials science, and artificial intelligence have added many functionalities.
Market for exoskeletons is growing
The global market for exoskeletons is expected continue to grow rapidly, but forecasts differ greatly from one consultancy to the next.
Global Market Insights said it expects 86,000 units, valued at $3.4 billion, or $39,535 per unit, to be sold by 2024. Sixty percent of these will be used in medical mobility, worth $760 million, and nearly a quarter of the total market value will be spent for military purposes, according to the research firm.
ABI Research predicts 91,000 worldwide shipments by 2023 and 301,000 by 2028. It also said that industrial exoskeleton revenue will experience a compound annual growth rate of 39.5%, reaching $2.9 billion by 2028.
Action movies have created an image of exoskeletons turning ordinary people into superheroes or supersoldiers, enabling them to jump off buildings, run as fast as cars, and be bulletproof. The reality is more prosaic, but it’s as important, if not more so, for soldiers’ health and well-being.
While military injuries and wounds require exoskeletons similar to civilian versions, weight reduction for fit soldiers is a crucial application. Modern soldiers need to convey from 80 to 660 lb. (40 to 300 kg). Military exoskeletons enable soldiers to carry up to 17 times more weight than normal, so carrying 400 pounds feels like 23.5 pounds.
The first exoskeletons were focused on enabling paraplegics, amputees, and others to walk. Innovations in this segment continue to make huge differences in patients’ lives. The FDA recently approved a new exoskeleton from Ekso Bionics, one of the main players in this field. This new exoskeleton gets stroke and spinal cord injury sufferers back on their feet sooner.
Cambridge University has done a study on “user perspectives of exoskeleton technology.” While it was unable to draw any unified conclusions, the study noted that end-user demand is diverse and should drive development.
General applications and economics
Many professions place a heavy burden on people’s bodies, especially in manufacturing, logistics, and agriculture. Exoskeletons can play a major role in both preventing and alleviating comfort and health problems.
Konrad S. Stadler, a researcher at the Swiss University of Applied Sciences, describes several industrial applications for active and passive exoskeletons in “Exoskeletons in Industry: Designs and Their Potential.”
Health care costs and lost productivity are business reasons for considering exoskeletons. Overburdening of workers’ backs costs U.S. companies at least $15 billion every year. Lost productivity, while harder to measure, adds at least such an amount.
A German national calculation led to an estimate of €10 billion ($12 billion) in lost productivity per year due to back problems.
The British think tank Work Foundation estimates that 44 million Europeans, almost a quarter of the total workforce, suffer from some form of musculoskeletal disorder.
Industrial users of exoskeletons include automakers BMW, Ford, Honda, and Hyundai; electronics companies Mitsubishi, Panasonic, Samsung, and Siemens; and shipping and logistics firms AT, Geodis, and Pon. Climate-control and facilities management providers Rensa, WTH, and Vebego, as well as construction company Hankamp Gears, have also found use for exoskeletons.
Exoskeletons get smarter, softer
New generations of exoskeletons are controlled through AI and integrated with smart robotics, according to consultancy Frost & Sullivan. New functionalities resulting from this will enable substantial market growth, especially in industrial settings.
Soft robotics, or the use of flexible materials, is particularly relevant to exoskeletons. Materials advances can reduce the risk of injury, make exoskeletons easier to fit, and improve maneuverability. Off-the-shelf exoskeletons could vastly improve the plight of those suffering from or at risk of work-related injuries while also improving their performance.
At the University of Salford in the U.K., a new “soft continuum actuator” has been developed: a joint that bends like an elephant’s trunk. Unlike a traditional rigid robot joint, if it encounters resistance in one part of its body, it will still bend but at a different location elsewhere along its length.
By equipping a skintight material suit with these actuators, a soft exoskeleton could bend at the precise location of the wearer’s joints. This means the suit will fit a range of users comfortably without needing mechanical adjustment or calibration. Plus, the system is lightweight and can be worn like clothing rather than a bulky mechanical frame.
Most of the current growth in the market for exoskeletons has occurred in North America and Asia, but Europe is picking up the pace, especially in Germany, France, the U.K., Spain, the Netherlands, and Russia. Some examples:
- In 2018, the European Commission Research Information Service, CORDIS, published a study about opportunities for exoskeletons in the medical field.
- In 2016, the European Union concluded the BIOMOT project, aimed at improving mobility support exoskeletons.
- Spain: EU co-funded projects Balance and ColRobot, supported by a consortium of eleven organisations including Renault and Thales Alenia Space; leaders in the automotive and aerospace industry.
- France: the slender Hercule exoskeleton, developed by RB-3D.
- France: RoboMate was launched in 2017. Supported by EU funding, this exoskeleton is aimed at industrial applications and features an active and a passive arm and an active trunk.
Global standards could accelerate further innovation, as would the developments that reduce exoskeletons’ weight, rigidity, and the amount of tailoring needed for use.