Ford Channels Its Inner Tony Stark, Deploys Exoskeleton

Exoskeleton Technology Pilot

It might not allow Ford line workers to lift 100 tons like Iron Man, but new tech being trialed at Ford might prevent serious injury on the job.

Called EksoVest, the wearable technology elevates and supports a worker’s arms while performing overhead tasks. It’s the latest example of advanced technology showing up on assembly lines to reduce the physical toll on employees.

Ford estimates that some of its assembly line workers lift their arms to perform repetitive overhead work more than 4,600 times a day. That works out to over a million times a year. At this rate, the possibility of fatigue or injury on the body increases significantly. But a new upper body exoskeletal tool – the result of a partnership between Ford and California-based Ekso Bionics – helps lessen the chance of injury.

“My job entails working over my head, so when I get home my back, neck and shoulders usually hurt,” said Paul Collins, an assembly line worker at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant. “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.”

The EksoVest can be fitted to support workers ranging from 5 feet tall to 6 feet 4 inches tall, and provides adjustable lift assistance of five pounds to 15 pounds per arm. 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.

According to the company, it is comfortable to wear because it’s lightweight, it isn’t bulky, and it allows workers to move their arms freely. With support from the UAW and Ford, EksoVest is being piloted in two U.S. plants. Because the vests are non-motorized, they rely on physics (namely, torque) to help provide support.

“There is an actuator that sits in line with the shoulder connecting the arm cuff to the frame. When the hands are elevated to a certain height, the device engages and the actuator generates torque, generating lift on the arm cuffs and supporting the arms,” Ford said in a statement.

Potential applications for this tech extend beyond the assembly line to construction sites and distribution centers. The non-powered vest offers protection and support against fatigue and injury by reducing the stress and strain of high-frequency, long-duration activities that can take a toll on the body over time.

Workers have reported it takes less than a minute for a worker to don the vest unassisted, sliding arms into place, tightening straps and connecting a few snaps to secure it. It sounds like slipping on a life jacket before heading out in boat.

According to Ford, pilot projects such as the EksoVest, combined with other safety initiatives at the plant level, have contributed to an 83-percent decrease in the number of incidents resulting in days away, work restrictions or job transfers – the company reports an all-time low of 1.55 incidents per 100 full-time North American employees.

[Image: Ford Motor Company]

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