Exoskeleton suits turn auto factory workers into human robots


Wearable technology is taking on a different meaning in the world of automobiles.

As employees age and younger people shun the idea of working on a factory production line, car companies are looking at ways to lighten the load.

High-tech exoskeletons are being explored by automakers such as Hyundai Motor Co., Ford Motor Co. and General Motors. The technology, initially developed to aid people who lost the ability to walk or stand on their own, eases fatigue and helps prevent injury. It’s particularly useful for repetitive processes that can’t be automated even as robotics makes big inroads into the sector.

All sorts of companies have an “emphasis on corporate social responsibility and labor protection” and are making an effort to avoid workplace-related injuries, said Xu Zhenhua, the founder of ULS Robotics, a Shanghai-based firm that provides exoskeletons for carmakers, airport operators and other industrial manufacturers.

ULS Robotics is developing three exoskeletons that workers can wear to hold and lift heavy equipment. One is for the upper body, another goes around the waist and the third focuses on the lower limbs. The first two weigh about seven kilograms each and allow a wearer to lift an additional 44 pounds. They’re powered by a lithium battery that has a life of about 6-8 hours.

Xu said the exoskeletons are most useful along general assembly lines, which still rely to a degree on manual labor. Just as scooters and shared bicycles have helped solve the “last mile” problem for e-commerce deliveries and commuters, so too can exoskeletons help solve “the last person” problem on a production line, he said.

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