ASTM’s ET CoE Hosts First Exo Games

Motivate and empower the next generation of leaders in emerging technology to use standards as a springboard for innovation. Spark connections that grow into lasting global communities. Gain insights to guide future standards development – all while having fun. That’s the magic formula that ASTM’s Exo Technologies Center of Excellence (ET CoE) hit upon with their latest initiative, the
Exo Games.

At the inaugural event, held this August at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), U.K., student teams from around the world competed to design and build an exoskeleton, using ASTM standards.

Hands-On with Exo Standards

Taking their inspiration from established STEM events like RoboSub and FormulaStudent, the games were designed to improve student involvement and education in the exo industry.

Not only is this one of the first student-focused events ASTM has offered, but it’s the first-ever student initiative in exo technologies. Competing in teams to design, build, and test a self-contained exoskeleton from a project specification, they get hands-on experience with exo standards.

The initiative goes to the heart of ASTM’s wider Xcellerate program, which focuses on strengthening emerging technology like exo by putting standards at the heart of research and innovation. It was a logical next step for the Exo CoE to create a student event, as its director Bill Billotte explains. “Our purpose with all the centers of excellence is to speed up the time it takes to bring people, resources, and knowledge together, so emerging technologies can make real and rapid progress. The greatest generators of knowledge are people who are still in a learning framework. They’re discovering things or being exposed to things for the first time, and they’re being challenged by a situation – so that’s what the Exo Games are doing.”

Safe Space to Collaborate

By offering a safe environment for innovation without commercial concerns, the event provides a framework for collaboration. For Billotte, this is the crucial ingredient for successful standards development. “People are hesitant about getting involved with standards at the early stages of emergent technology, because there are many things that are considered proprietary. And people worry their products will look bad if they’re tested against other products. The Exo Games gives you a framework where you can have the same kind of innovation and get the emerging technology to touch the standards and vice versa, where people aren’t worried about losing their commercial advantage.”

With challenges built around ASTM standards and test methods, the games encouraged students to develop a thorough knowledge of the output from the exoskeletons and exosuits committee (F48). Nora Nimmerichter, committee staff manager, recalls that one student was tasked with reading all the F48 standards and was in charge of memorizing the specification for the Exo Games and recalling them immediately, as needed. What became evident to the competitors over the course of the event was that standards could give you an edge, says Nimmerichter. “The teams that did the best turned out to be the ones that followed the standards and specifications fully.”

Changing the Mindset

The change in mindset from seeing standards as an afterthought to seeing them as something that can drive innovation and competitive advantage is core to the Xcellerate program. Embedding fast-paced and agile standards development into the emerging tech ecosystem is, for Billotte, a “game changer.” “If you’re an emerging technologies area, the thing you’re trying to figure out once you’ve gone beyond what’s exciting in the research lab is trying to establish a business and figure out what the market is. Standards shape the marketplace, and we’re building a generation of future leaders who understand that out of the gate.”

The learning was not a one-way street, however. For the judges and industry delegates, the event offered a practical testbed to put standards into action with diverse and highly innovative applications. In doing so, it led to insights that might otherwise have taken some time to discover. Teams had a maximum budget of $2000 to build their exoskeleton, resulting in products that were quite different from those on the commercial market today. The Brazilian team created their exo from bamboo and fishing gear for just $26, to be accessible for manual laborers earning just a few dollars a day. Seeing the test methods in use for these very different exoskeletons, and for active and passive systems at the same time, was an eye-opener.

“We used the standards to develop metrics to measure all the teams,” says Nimmerichter. “Our members from F48 who attended got to see how the standards performed and the repeatability. So we’ve got this amazing early feedback that we otherwise wouldn’t have gotten until the testing and certification stage.”

Powering Connections and Careers

This two-way exchange promises to be a legacy of the event. “We’ve had nearly a dozen students joining ASTM since the games, not only in F48, but on the medical devices, additive manufacturing, and robotics committees,” says Nimmerichter. While the event is creating a pipeline of future industry leaders and innovators ready to take forward the standards agenda, the students themselves stand to reap the rewards of a “network accelerator.” “You don’t have to be in industry 20 years before you have a big enough network to actually reach out,” says Billotte. “Now you’ve got it from day one, because you’ve been involved with standards. You’re connected to all the people who are working on the most challenging parts.”

Given the success from all quarters, it’s little surprise that plans are underway for the 2024 Exo Games. The ASTM team hopes to build on the best of this year’s event, with a few tweaks to the challenges based on what they’ve learned. One thing they won’t be looking to change, however, is the camaraderie and enthusiasm of the participants. Perhaps the final word should go to Brazilian delegate Arthur Ming, who wrote on LinkedIn: “It was the best experience of my life. The whole process: learning, developing, enhancing, and executing it with you guys. Thanks a lot for the life-changing opportunity.”