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Technology can make you stronger: An interview with Ekso Bionics


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Photo courtesy of Ekso Bionics

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in the potential for wearable technologies to enhance human capabilities and productivity on the jobsite. Opinions vary on whether these technologies are all ‘hype’ or if they’re soon to become a daily reality and a part of the inventory.

Yet it’s easy to recognise the potential impact emerging technologies might have on creating safer and more efficient construction sites. Jobsite spoke to Tom Mastaler, Senior Vice President of Business Development at Ekso Bionics to learn more about the business, and gain insight into the role of power enhancing exosuits in construction.

Ekso Bionics – the story

Ekso Bionics was founded in 2005 in California and made their name with the exoskeleton, which was initially developed primarily for medical purposes, specifically for people suffering from spinal cord injuries or having difficulties walking after strokes.

More recently, in mid-2014, the company started to see a growing demand from the construction industry for the technology to become available for able-bodied workers. This stemmed from construction companies finding they didn’t have enough workers to get the job done, and their most skilled workers faced durability issues due to muscle fatigue and strain.

Understanding that construction workers were reluctant to wear a full body exoskeleton, Ekso developed two key products to support workers with wielding heavy tools and high strain tasks:

  •  EksoZeroG - a mounted arm, leveraging exoskeleton technology to act as a prop for heavy tools, reducing the physical strain
  •  EksoVest – an upper body exoskeleton to assist with tasks from chest height to overhead, supporting a worker’s arms and shoulders

What tasks can the technology be used for and how can it help?

Whilst Ekso initially developed a full body exoskeleton with the gravity balance arm attached, they found a lot more success when the arm was separate and workers were able to move independently to the unit.

Typical uses include chipping, heavy fastening, grinding, and drilling – particularly long duration, heavy duty activities. 

Typical uses include chipping, heavy fastening, grinding, and drilling – particularly long duration, heavy duty activities. It, therefore, saves workers from injuries caused by strain and muscle fatigue, in addition to increasing productivity and work quality.

The gravity arm is unpowered, and, according to Tom, very easy to use as “it takes less than 30 minutes to train up our main distributors. After that, you’ll be very comfortable in how to set it up and take it down, and how to sling a tool on site.”

"We have a customer who would send two workers up in an aerial to complete the work. One worker would work while the other was resting, and then they would switch so they could keep the aerial up as long as they could. When they were both worn out, they would both have to rest. Then, they would have to repeat the process,” Tom explains.

“With the gravity balance arm in place, this company was able to just send one worker up who returned with the work completed in about half the time. They were then able to get a second worker, and send them up in a different location. Not only were both workers more productive but, most importantly, they were not suffering from fatigue as a result.”

The technology, therefore, not only helps to achieve productivity gains, but also enables project managers to save on costs incurred from health and safety issues resulting from fatigue and injury.

Meanwhile, the EksoVest, launching  this September, is like mechanical shoulders that allow the worker wearing the upper body exoskeleton to lift an extra 5 to 15 pounds per arm lift. As the workers raise their arms, the spring mechanisms are engaged to take the weight.

EksoVest technology increases productivity through empowering workers to work faster, more effectively, and are less tired. 

In addition to improved health and wellbeing for workers, EksoVest technology increases productivity through empowering workers to work faster, more effectively, and are less tired.

How can construction managers take advantage of the product?

When faced with new technologies, leaders in any industry are often confronted by a number of confusing decisions. Am I going to see return on investment? Will this investment please my shareholders? Am I just falling for the latest gimmick?

When asked what advice he would give to those looking to take advantage of Ekso’s products, Tom says, “first off, be as broad as you can. This is an emerging technology, there are a lot of different approaches to it. Nobody is going to be right, and nobody is going to be wrong. It’s going to be an emerging process.”

With regards to wearable technology more broadly, Tom comments that: “The companies that are the early adopters, they don’t know what the return on investment is right now, and they don’t want to be reading about it once it’s figured out. They want to be the pioneers, and to be able to tell their investors that they’re at the forefront of changing the way work gets done. And these early adopters will create a critical mass.”

If you liked this article, here are a few more you might enjoy: 

Safety First: Wearable Digital Technology for Construction

Keeping Your Technology Up to Date

Technology Chargeback in the Construction Industry

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