By on November 10, 2017

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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26 Comments on “Ford Channels Its Inner Tony Stark, Deploys Exoskeleton...”

  • avatar

    The union wouldn’t allow more robots on the assembly line. Management found a way, courtesy of Dick Jones and Omni Consumer Products.

  • avatar

    Oh I get it, a human-robot hybrid. It makes perfect sense.

  • avatar

    Since details are not provided we have to rely on the photo.
    The device appears to transfer weight loads from the arms, hands, shoulders and spine to the pelvis. Since the same amount, or more, work is being done this means that repetitive motion injuries to the hips, knees, ankles and feet will occur more often and probably be more severe.
    Repetitive motion injuries are part of doing this type of work. There has been little done toward reorganizing the industrial process to reduce or eliminate this problem. Beyond,that is, not having human workers at all and replacing them with “robots”.
    Of course then workers have to look for another job.
    Nice choice, which is usually not disclosed, get higher pay at work that destroys your body or minimum wage at less physically demanding work.

    • 0 avatar

      Having carried and ALICE ruck and a modern backpack with a hip belt I would say this is probably a vast improvement. Your pelvis and legs are much stronger than your arms and shoulders.

    • 0 avatar

      Oh there are plenty of minimum wage jobs out there that can destroy your body at an equal or faster rate.

      I don’t know if they are still in business but there was a local roof truss manufacturer that didn’t have a problem using all human labor to assemble and move their trusses around the warehouse that was heated in the summer and cooled in the winter at no more than minimum wage.

  • avatar

    If my math is right, and it always is………

    This looks like a great step towards reducing repetitive motion issues.

    Good for Ford!

  • avatar

    BMW in South Carolina started using these last month.

    Reminds me of the 80’s when everybody wore back braces to lift. Only to discover they made you back weaker.

  • avatar

    Will it help Ford workers in making cars with fewer gaps and poorly aligned body panels?

    • 0 avatar

      @Elitistsnob.. No it won’t ..For a start, under car workers don’t have much to do with aligning body panels. Even the folks that hang doors, deck lids, hoods, and fenders, have a little or no impact on panel alignments .

      Panel alignments are an engineering issue. The Engineers/Designers determine the standards that FOMOCO has laid out..The Engineers are like the rest of us people in the working word. They do what the boss tells them to do.

  • avatar

    I was fortunate that I didn’t spend my entire career on the assembly line..I did work the pit for five years ,and now at the age of 63 the pain in my left shoulder, and forearm remind of those years..Such is the “price we pay” I can live with it.

    This is device a good idea. I see one big issue. Will each worker have his own device ? Lets just say that not all people share the same standards of personal hygiene . I shared a head set with the girl on the other shift. We would lock it in our common locker, and we were the only two with keys. Management was not enthused with this idea…

    I can see this device getting incredibly dirty, who cleans it ? If it breaks will there be back up equipment ?

  • avatar

    When does the Mark 43 come out?

  • avatar

    This kind of thing has HUGE potential when the costs can come down. It could keep older employees working longer and there are a ton of potential applications.

    Having done OSHA work for a construction company, as well as having run a pressure washer for hours on end, I’d love to try this out.

  • avatar

    If they’re smart they’d hire Sigourney Weaver as a spokesperson.

  • avatar
    Jonathan H.

    Ford is probably collecting telemetry data from these things and feeding it into a supercomputer to design a robot that can perfectly mimic a human doing these tasks. Like how game designers wire up Tiger Woods to replicate his technique inside the game.

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