Will we soon be seeing Iron Men everywhere? Possibly: the concept of the augmented man, i.e. a human whose performance is enhanced by technology, has become a reality.
Exhauss is the first company in the world to sell industrial exoskeletons. These structures are designed to increase workers’ physical capabilities whilst preserving their health. Exhauss’ exoskeletons consist of a mechanical or electro-mechanical harness that can make factories look like the set of a science fiction film.
So how do exoskeletons work? And how to convince companies and employees to drastically change their working methods? How to fight against resistance to change? We asked Pierre Davezac, Managing Director of Exhauss.
POWERED exoskeletons CAN PREVENT repetitive strain injurIES
Could you tell us a little about what you do and the products you make?
Pierre Davezac: First I need to tell you a bit about our history. Exhauss is a subsidiary of L’Aigle, the only French manufacturer of camera stabilisers for the film and television industry. So we’ve effectively been making exoskeletons for the past 12 years, only they weren’t always called that!
“What’s unique about our approach is that we use our mechanical know-how to make exoskeletons that are already functional, rather than using less mature technologies such as robotics, hydraulics or electrics…These techniques are still at the lab stage, whereas we’ve been at the market-ready stage for nearly two years.”
We have a number of different models. The basic model H (Hanger) is a frame on a harness that the operator wears and thus becomes a sort of human crane. He/she can lift any tool or weight without the slightest physical strain. We have another version of this model with an electronic winch: L (Lifter) can hold a weight on the ground and then lift it up just by hitting a button.
Other models are interfaced with the operator’s limbs. With the exoskeleton W (Worker), for example, the operator’s arms are carried and reinforced by the mechanical structure. The operator can thus perform all his/her daily tasks and operate tools without feeling the strain, which increases comfort levels considerably. Our latest model, the S (Stronger) is mechatronic, which means the arms have a spring scale with an electronic card, motor and battery. So when the operator gets hold of an object, the exoskeleton weighs it and the motors adapt the arm’s mechanical carrying capability accordingly.
“When the operator’s arms are empty, the mechanical arms have no strength, but as soon as they pick something up the exoskeleton increases its strength so it can carry the weight effortlessly.”
At the moment, we’re focusing on the weakest and most fragile parts of the body: the arms and back, but towards the end of the year we’re going to start adding mechanical legs, so we’ll have “complete” exoskeletons.
CONSTRUCTION, logistiCS, automoTIVE: A BROAD CUSTOMER PORTFOLIO!
Who’s your clientele?
These programmes are usually pretty confidential. The first orders we got were from the construction industry. We also work with major car manufacturers, logistics companies, retailers, and any industry that involves repetitive handling of loads. We have clients who prepare orders for cosmetic companies: they combine the products so have to carry heavy buckets of chemicals.
“We have a very wide range of clients: in just about every industry sector, the activity at some point involves carrying a heavy load.”
In most cases, we deal with the Health & Safety Officers or ergonomists. Typically, it starts with a pilot project in the company, followed by a procurement process which is often very long.
COMBATTING FEAR OF change
What sort of obstacles have you come up against?
“When we go to present our solutions to prospective clients, we usually deal with around a dozen executives, Health & Safety or Environmental Health Officers, Health & Safety Committees, doctors, ergonomists, Purchasing Managers, Factory Managers, etc. who have got together to try and improve employees’ working conditions. But it’s often the employees themselves who’ll say “I’m not putting that on!”
There are a lot of pre-conceived ideas about exoskeletons, at least with certain people. Young people, for example, are more aware of health issues and watch science-fiction films like Iron Man or Alien, so they’re more receptive to the idea. But with people who’ve been working for ten years or more with the same habits and methods, it’s harder. We have to help them accept the idea of exoskeletons. The change is a gradual process: we present the concept and organise sessions whereby employees can try out the exoskeletons and say what they think.
Do you train staff?
We always go on-site to deploy the exoskeletons. We do a technical briefing on how they work and spend a lot of time showing them the right posture and movements. We usually see that people have got into bad habits and don’t even notice it anymore.
“Rolling out exoskeletons also involves thinking about working methods.”
We recently deployed an exoskeleton for a sandblasting expert who had a very heavy hose. He already had a lift table but he didn’t use it. So during the training session, we stressed that the exoskeleton means he doesn’t have to bear the weight of the hose but also pointed out the importance of using all the equipment available.
Have you had any feedback from users?
Yes, lots. One striking example is from a client in the construction industry. A builder had to sand the 1,000m² ceiling of the lobby of a five-star hotel in Paris. It had to be done manually to get a better finish: a nightmare of a job! Before he got the exoskeleton, the builder would sand for 10 or 15 minutes then take a 20-minute break, which meant he managed to sand around 4m² of ceiling a day. With the exoskeleton, he can now do more like 18m² a day, easily. The fact that the builder no longer has to tire out his arm means he can work much better and faster, and with a better output. He said that he used to go home in the evening and just collapse onto the sofa, exhausted, whereas now he takes care of his children!
Do you have any competitors?
“We’re the only company in the world that does what we do.”
There are people in the exoskeleton field but they tend to focus on therapeutic or medical uses, for example to help wheelchair-bound patients learn to walk. Then there’s the defence sector: in the US, there’s Sarcos or the University of Berkeley. We’re the only company that provides these solutions for ordinary tradesmen and labourers, people who ruin their health through their job. But we know we won’t be without competition for long!
Tomorrow, will everyone have exoskeletons to do maintenance and DIY at home?
Our exoskeletons cost between €4 and €10,000. That’s within a company’s budget but it’s still a lot of money for individuals. The growth of exoskeletons will depend on how widely they’re deployed in the field – that’s what will bring prices down.
“Technically, we’re ready but we need to get people used to the rather unusual sight of exoskeletons in factories!”
Photo credit: wwwuppertal – Iron man / Flickr.com / Licence CC BY-NC 2.0