Exoskeleton technologies are gaining new significance in the automotive world. As employees get older and younger ones shun the idea of working on a factory production line, car companies are looking for ways to ease the burden on their staff.
High-tech exoskeletons are being studied by companies such as Hyundai Motor Co, Ford Motor Co, and General Motors Co.
The technology, originally developed to help people who can no longer walk or stand on their own, are now being redesigned to address the specificity of assembly lines to relieve fatigue and prevent injury to their employees.
This is especially useful for repetitive processes that cannot be automated, even when robotics is making great strides in the mechanical engineering industry.
“All businesses focus on corporate social responsibility and safety at work and strive to prevent work-related injuries,” said Xu Zhenhua, founder of ULS Robotics, a Shanghai-based company that provides exoskeletons to automakers, airport operators and other industrial enterprises.
ULS Robotics is developing three exoskeletons that workers can wear to hold and lift heavy equipment. One is for the upper body, the other is attached around the waist, and the third is for the lower limbs.
The first two weigh about seven kilograms each and allow the wearer to lift an additional 20 kilograms. They are powered by a lithium battery with a life span of six to eight hours.
Xu Zhenhua says exoskeletons are most useful on general assembly lines where manual labor is still used.
GM is testing several ULS Robotics products. Other customers include China Southern Airlines Co, Shanghai International Airport and Beijing New International Airport. According to Xu Zhenhua, exoskeletons can be especially useful for ground personnel.
Future Capital Discovery Fund is one of the first investors in ULS Robotics. Founding partner Huang Mingming said exoskeletons are solving a problem that not only China but the entire world is facing.
“Over the past 30 years, China has gained an advantage because we had a lot of young people and an inexpensive labor force.
However, aging and declining fertility began in the early 2010s. Although the automotive industry is already highly automated, it still requires experienced staff for final assembly. At some stages of the assembly line, people cannot be replaced by robots, ”says Huang Minming.
South Korean Hyundai has an exoskeleton that employees can use to perform office tasks, and another exoskeleton that transforms into a chair so that employees can perform tasks without bending.
“The population is aging and the people who work in factories are also aging, which means that the costs of accidents at work are on the rise. Portable devices have become an important means of reducing these costs, ”said Hyun Dong Jin, head of Hyundai Robotics Lab.
Hyundai will test the exoskeletons that Hyundai Rotem Co makes in Korea and plans to ship them to one of its plants in Alabama prior to global release later this year. Eventually, she hopes to sell them to other automakers.