Exoskeletons: equipping augmented humans in the future workplace

Author : Chris Johnson, Managing Director of SMB Bearings

11 September 2017

Credit: Panasonic

SMB Bearings discuss how we are looking towards a manual labour-friendly future, what exoskeletal technology can do for us, and how to help equip ourselves for its industrial and medical applications.

Robotic exoskeletons are metal frameworks, fitted with motors and sensors, which multiply the wearer’s strength beyond their natural capabilities. The framework allows the wearer to lift heavier objects without injury, offering huge potential benefits for the health of workers in factories, warehouses and even nursing homes.

The point of these exoskeletons is to augment the human workforce, enhancing a person's own ability. As Homayoon Kazerooni, a University of California robotics professor, explained earlier this year: “It’s not about making workers superman. We want to eliminate the pain of the physical labour of these guys.” Kazerooni certainly brings this Hollywood technology back down to earth, breaking the Hollywood fantasy expectation.

Robotic exoskeletons could one day create a society where anyone, regardless of strength, can partake in industrial work processes. In one example, shown in the video below, Panasonic laid the foundations for this with its AWN-03 assist robot. Using auto-assist technology, this robotic exoskeleton uses sensors to detect when the wearer is lifting heavy objects. In response, it raises the wearer's upper body and pushes on the user's thighs to reduce strain on the back by 15kg (for further information, visit this link from Panasonic.

Credit: Panasonic

Development

Just as the health and strength of real human skeletons are dependent on good decisions, such as diet, to ensure effective movement and longevity, robotic skeletons are also dependant on similar wisdom. With specialists in robot software, sensor technology and mechanical engineers working together to drive the development of robotic exoskeletons, every decision is a make or break contribution – including bearing choice.

Sapporo Precision, the leading bearing specialist, is already supplying EZO thin-type precision bearings for robotic exoskeleton applications. Apart from taking up less space and being much lighter than standard types, these bearings have the high precision and good rotational accuracy required for robotic exoskeletons, as a result of EZO’s advanced manufacturing techniques and quality control.

Additionally, if robotic exoskeletons are to be used in a controlled environment such as a clean room, specialist bearing lubricants will also be required. This reduces risk of contamination caused by greases giving off vapour, a problem known as outgassing. Bearing materials and the lubricants must be carefully chosen to avoid such complications.

Powered exoskeleton suits are fast becoming a reality across various industries, and are no longer just a Hollywood concept. An estimated several hundred commercial and experimental exoskeletons now in operation globally. Even if current exoskeleton suits don’t bestow superhuman powers, they will increasingly impact workers' lives by assisting people in performing heavy labour jobs with fewer injuries.


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