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Ford's exoskeleton project merges man, machine on assembly line

by Justin King
Ford's exoskeleton project merges man, machine on assembly line

The technology allows human workers to perform tasks that would otherwise cause injury or require further automation of the assembly line.

Ford has begun to test exoskeleton technology to help human workers better perform certain demanding tasks without injury.

A bit less exciting than the weaponized exoskeletons of sci-fi fantasy, the EksoVest mounts to the upper torso and helps redistribute load while the worker performs an overhead task.

Ford says some workers lift their hands more than 4,600 times per day, equating to more than a million times a year -- sometimes holding relatively heavy equipment such as a torque wrench.

The Ekso gear simply elevates and supports a worker's arm, providing an adjustable assistance of up to 15 pounds per arm.

Notably, the EksoVest is unpowered but some companies are working on alternative designs that use electric motors and advanced sensors to help workers perform complex tasks with heavier equipment. The systems essentially provide supplementary muscle power.

"My job entails working over my head, so when I get home my back, neck and shoulders usually hurt," says Ford assembly line worker Paul Collins. "Since I started using the vest, I'm not as sore, and I have more energy to play with my grandsons when I get home."

Assembly-line ergonomics is an increasingly important engineering consideration in developing next-generation vehicles. As companies consider which tasks should be kept manual or switched to an automated process, exoskeletons show potential to blend the benefits of human action and robotic assistance.