Exoskeletons Capture the Future

This year, ASTM is amplifying its efforts to strengthen the world's emerging technologies – from research to standards. This series focuses on different ways our work is promoting excellence, accelerating development, and underpinning commercial success.
Kate Fielding

Boeing’s engineers live and breathe innovation. It’s a passion that’s evident not just in their cutting-edge products, but across the workplace, where new technologies are transforming manufacturing operations. 

Dr Christopher Reid is a Technical Fellow with Boeing, specializing in ergonomics and wearable technology. Over the past six years, he’s been working to assess and roll out exoskeleton technology to make work safer, healthier, and more efficient for the people producing and delivering Boeing’s aircraft. 

Targeting High Risk Jobs

The first challenge for Reid and his team has been to work out where to focus their efforts. It’s not always easy to say who is most at risk of injury. “In the production environment, most injuries result from cumulative trauma – repetitive stress that accumulates over time,” says Reid. “They can be severe when they happen, but they're hard to predict because everybody responds to injuries differently.” 

Despite the unpredictable nature of stress injuries, Boeing’s ergonomists have developed risk assessments that allow them to say with a high degree of confidence where these injuries may occur. As a result, they’re able to target high-risk locations where employees will benefit most from exoskeletons, and pre-empt injuries before they happen.

“If someone is doing overhead work for two hours a day, that’s a leading indicator that they will benefit from a shoulder exoskeleton,” says Reid. “Over time, using our lessons learned, we’ve essentially been able to turn it into a math problem. So you don’t need a highly-qualified specialist to run the risk-assessment. A novice can run through the checklist and match up the job to the exoskeleton.”

Adding Up the Benefits

With more than 140,000 employees around the world, this structured approach to assessments has been key to the effective deployment of exo technology at Boeing. The company has doubled the number of exoskeletons in use over the past two years, as the technology has started to prove its worth. In addition to reducing the negative impact of repetitive strain injuries, exoskeletons are an effective cost-avoidance strategy.

“We’re seeing the return on investment against just the direct costs of compensation and time off for workers with stress injuries,” says Reid. “Beyond that, you have the indirect costs of replacing an injured employee, training someone else to do their job, and the time it takes for them to become expert, during which your production line is less efficient. So the total cost of an injury is much, much higher.”

Adding up these benefits has led Boeing’s leaders to make significant investments in the technology. Reid and his colleagues are investigating exoskeletons for other body parts, including lower back and full-body devices. As with the shoulder exoskeletons, these will go through a process of qualification and testing before they are deployed across the business. As the technologies are so new, this process can require significant time, and investment, says Reid. “We spend a lot of energy up front doing these qualifications, laboratory studies in universities, hiring specialists, and working with specialists from academic settings, or internal to Boeing.”

Pooling Knowledge to Speed Progress

Boeing has been able to collaborate with others to investigate these technologies through ASTM International. Reid is chair of subcommittee on human factors and ergonomics (F48.02) and sits on ASTM’s board of directors. He likens the approach to a research consortium, that is adding strength to strength. “We’re getting data through this network saying, ‘Hey, we've used this for six months, we've trialed it for a year, here's the feedback that we've learned, here are some lab studies that we that we funded.’ It's allowed us to share across borders and accelerate our evaluations.” 

As one of the pioneers in adopting exo technologies, Reid believes many of the factors slowing adoption lie not with the technology, but with the market. “I'd like to see the market grow so that we can bring down the individual cost of these devices and allow them to be more pervasive,” he says. “But to get there, you need a stable supply chain, you have to build market trust for investors, you have to look at ways to involve regulators, look at workers compensation insurance.”

For Reid, the ASTM Exo Technology Center of Excellence (CoE) is an effective link between these high-level needs and grassroots deployments of the technology. By bringing together customers, suppliers, regulators, and academics, the ET CoE is able to make connections that can speed innovation and further commercialization.  

Through its ‘research-to-standards’ approach, the CoE is mapping gaps in exo technology standards – from specifications to test methods and training – and funding research projects to fill them. One such project is around the use of exoskeletons for injured employees returning to work. Reid and others posit that it might be possible to use an exoskeleton device to protect workers during the recovery phase without exacerbating the injury. If proved to be feasible, and supported with standards, many companies would stand to benefit from being able to use exoskeletons in return-to-work situations, further reducing the cost burden of work injuries. 

Smarter, More Adaptable Technology

Looking ahead, what excites Reid are the opportunities being created through the convergence of new technologies, from artificial intelligence and robotics to new battery and computing capability. “What we're seeing is technology becoming smaller and more adaptable in different circumstances,” he says. “In exo technology, on the softer material or exosuit side, you’re seeing that capability become smart clothing. And on the harder exoskeleton side, you’re seeing devices that are able to take on larger payloads that would traditionally put a person at risk.”

At Boeing, those could be deployed in a uniform that could reduce the risk to employees from fatigue or that could carry out work that involves larger payloads where there isn’t room to use overhead gantries or cranes. Reid is betting on both sides. “I’m always looking at it from the perspective of ‘How can I capture the future that’s near-term and bring that in to help the company?’”

It’s an outlook that promises to continue Boeing’s long tradition of innovation. It also promises to see many beyond the company benefit from the exo technology advances ASTM’s pioneering work is supporting.

Read the first installment in the Xcellerate Series HERE.
Read the second installment in the Xcellerate Series HERE.

Read the third installment in the Xcellerate Series HERE.
Read the fourth installment in the Xcellerate Series HERE.

Read the fifth installment in the Xcellerate Series HERE.

Read the sixth installment in the Xcellerate Series HERE.
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Read the eleventh installment in the Xcellerate Series HERE.