Exoskeletons for Construction Workers Are Marching On-Site
For construction workers of the not-so-distant future, the term “suit up” may refer to sporting a metal exosuit – an exoskeleton for construction workers – which provides robotic strength, even if it doesn’t quite bestow them with the powers of Iron Man.
The exosuits, or exoskeletons used within the construction industry are ripe for growth, says Dan Kara, who until December led research focusing on robotics at ABI Research, a technology business research firm.
ABI Research predicts the robotic exoskeleton market alone will reach $1.8 billion in 2025, up from $68 million in 2014. This year, about 6,000 suits will be sold, mainly for rehabilitation. By 2025, ABI expects to see about 2.6 million on the market.
While a number of companies make exoskeleton suits for construction and manufacturing use, they’ve made limited headway as of yet in the construction field and few, if any, construction companies have adopted them. Meanwhile, builders can keep tabs on manufacturers who are giving the robotic suits a test run to determine how they can translate to use within the construction industry.
What are robotic exosuits?
The exosuits are metal frameworks fitted with motorized muscles to multiply the wearer’s strength. Also called exoskeletons, the robotic suits’ metal framework somewhat mirrors the wearer’s internal skeletal structure.
The suit makes lifted objects feel much lighter, and sometimes even weightless, reducing injuries and improving compliance.
And the construction industry will be taking to these wearable powered or unpowered robotic exosuits in great numbers, at least according to one analysis.
One reason the robotic suits are ripe for adoption by builders is their falling prices, Kara says. To take an example, two types of suits, the Chairless Chair and the EksoWorks Vest, sell for about $5,000 each, far less than the type of full-body suits that help those who are paralyzed walk.
From U.S. military project to healthcare and beyond
First developed by the military, the exoskeletons have been making the move from healthcare into the manufacturing and agriculture industries, where employees also carry and transfer heavy loads and move in a repetitive manner. In healthcare, the suits help stroke victims regain limb strength or even help those who are paralyzed walk or use their arms.
Around 1965, General Electric started to develop the Hardiman, a large full-body exoskeleton designed to augment the users’ strength by a factor of 25 to help them lift heavy objects. The project, sponsored by the U.S. Army and Navy sought a machine that could help move cargo or equipment. The exoskeleton weighed 1,500 pounds and was made up of two suits, one attached to the operator and an external one that carried objects.
The machine’s heavy weight as well as issues putting it on and taking it off caused exosuit development to stall for a while.
But around 2000, exoskeleton robotic suits became increasingly accessible to users in the healthcare. One of the first applications, Lokomat, is used for gait rehabilitation in stroke and spinal cord injured patients, who wear the suit while walking on a treadmill.
Around 2015, the suits made their way into industrial applications.
For example, Ekso Bionics announced an expansion into the construction industry and other industries alike with the Ekso Works Industrial Exoskeleton. The suit allows the user to be able to lift power tools as if they don’t weigh anything at all, according to Ekso.