Ford rolls out largest adoption of exoskeleton technology to date to help prevent worker injury
75 ExoVests will be distributed across 15 plants internationally, including China in the coming months.
In what’s considered the largest adoption of the technology to date, Ford Motors is rolling out 75 upper-body exoskeletons across 15 of its plants, including locations in the U.S, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Romania and China in the coming months.
Partnering with California-based Ekso Bionics, Ford is utilizing their EksoVest technology providing passive mechanical support for employees when working on overhead tasks that requires them to stretch upwards for long periods of time.
The partnership stems from a combination of intuitive product design and good timing as Ekso was exploring application uses for upper body exoskeletons around the same time Ford was looking to implement the technology into its workforce. With Ford responding positively to an early prototype, the partnership took off and according to Ekso, the automotive giant provided plenty of useful feedback.
“Ford provided a testing ground and valuable feedback on design inputs and Ekso Bionics provided iterations to satisfy the requests coming from their workers. The partnership resulted in a comfortable, light-weight upper body exoskeleton that provides a significant amount of lift assistance to reduce the risk of injury and fatigue to the shoulder muscles during overhead work,” said Kevin Dacey, a Sr. Mechanical Engineer at Ekso Bionics.
In terms of a Canadian rollout, Ford plans on using the EksoVests in its Oakville plant after two successful trials in Wayne, Mich. and Flat Rock Assembly Plant in Flat Rock, Mich.
According to Dacey, the EksoVest works off a passive spring-driven actuator located at each shoulder, providing torque into each arm of user to assist them during a lift. As a purely mechanical system the actuator activates when the user lifts their arm, generating torque in each arm and depending on which spring is installed, the EksoVest is able to provide 5-15lbs of lift assistance. The modular nature of the vest means it fits a variety of body types, fitting workers workers ranging from 5’2 to 6’4.
When it comes to the displacement of energy and the internal activation of the spring-driven actuator, Dacey had this to say:
“In terms of the displacement of energy, the actuator is spring driven. That energy is released when the arm is lifted. When the arm is returned back down at the users side, that spring energy is returned to the system….when it comes to the engaging and disengaging of the actuator, we have designed a resting zone into our actuator through our cam profile that allows the user to rest their arms at their side without any force output. When outside of that zone, the profile allows for a ramp up to a peak torque when the arm is parallel to the ground.”
Outside of the EksoVest, the company has a similar exoskeleton designed for those dealing with spinal cord injuries or rehabilitation from a stroke for example. As one of the first FDA approved exoskeleton of its kind, the EksoGT differs from the industrial vest in it’s a full body design and inclusion of Functional Electrical Stimulation therapy (FES) where “nerves are stimulated with electrical current to cause muscular contraction. FES can enable muscles to be trained even if some or all voluntary control of them has been lost.” The EksoGT also comes equipped with cloud-based software that allows physicians to analyze data and make minor adjustments via a remote that comes with the system.
Since the EksoVEST is purely mechanical and needs no electrical or battery driven function to work, FES therapy and the cloud-based software aren’t currently built-in, but Dacey doesn’t rule the possibility, noting the fact that Ekso Bionics is always looking to cross pollinate their applications.
“Ekso Bionics is uniquely positioned in the exoskeleton industry because of its knowledge of the health, military, and industrial spaces. We are able to leverage technology developed for different industries and use them across multiple products. So although it is not currently being used in our industrial products, we are always looking at how our technology can be used in different applications,” Dacey said.