Musculoskeletal disorders are quite common among warehouse workers because of all the repetitive walking, bending, lifting, crouching, twisting and squatting they have to do on a daily basis.
Exoskeleton suits are one solution to this problem that logistics companies are just beginning to explore. Most of these suits are worn over the torso and upper legs and are thus primarily used to protect the upper body from injury.
More specifically, these exoskeleton suits do one or more of the following:
- Help delay arms and shoulder muscle fatigue,
- Reduce peak and cumulative loading of lower back muscles
- Provide tool holding support
- Provide leg support
Most exoskeletons in the market that are geared towards logistics workers only offer lower back support.
Some of the well known exoskeleton suit makers include:
- Lockheed Martin Corporation
- ReWalk Robotics
- Ekso Bionics
- German Bionic
- Hyundai Motor Group
- Parker Hannifin
- Bionik Laboratories
- Lockheed Martin
- ReWalk Robotics
- Sarcos Robotics
Exoskeletons for warehouse workers can largely be divided into two categories: powered and passive exoskeletons.
Active (or powered) exoskeletons utilize one or more actuators such as motors, pneumatic pumps and hydraulic pumps to enhance strength and endurance of the body.
Passive exoskeletons have no electric actuation and instead use devices such as springs, dampers and locking mechanisms to assist in movement.
Four examples of exoskeleton suit brands for warehouse workers include:
Cray X is manufactured and marketed by German Bionic.
Unlike passive exoskeletons which are mostly used for preventing muscle strain, the Cray X also provides 30 kg (66.14 lbs) lift compensation.
It provides real-time data that can be used to maintain and enhance safety practices in a warehouse environment.
“In general I’d say warehouse workers profit from an active exoskeleton solution, but we always recommend an analysis of the individual use case.”, says Marlies Doppelhammer, Marketing Manager at German Bionic.
This suit is manufactured by HeroWear and uses lightweight material to offload 50 lbs off the lower back.
It’s also modular (has clutch, switch, back unit and thigh sleeves) and comes in both male and female versions.
The LiftSuit 2 is a lightweight passive exoskeleton (weighing around 0.9 kg/1.99 lbs) developed by Auxivo.
It reduces strain on the back and hip muscles.
It works well with tasks that involve forward leaning posture e.g., picking from or placing items on a conveyor.
A passive exoskeleton that is marketed specifically towards the logistics industry.
Absorbs forces when bent down and releases them when lifting something up.
As opposed to powered exoskeleton suits, the Ottobock Back is designed specifically to reduce strain on the back and not necessarily to make you stronger.
Challenges of implementing exoskeletons solutions in a warehouse environment
Exoskeleton use in warehouses is only beginning to gather steam but it faces a few challenges:
Exoskeletons can be cost prohibitive
Exoskeletons (especially powered ones) can be quite expensive which makes some employers balk during the buying process. However, improved job satisfaction among employees, less sick days and turnover due to injury and increased productivity is worth the cost.
Lack of employee buy-in
Employers might face resistance from employees who find the exoskeleton suits to be uncomfortable to move around in or complain that they are slowing them down. This resistance is more pronounced in warehouses that offer performance bonuses to their employees.
This is why scheduling a pilot program with a provider of your choice to gradually increase acceptance through mentorship cannot be overstated.