Ford’s cars are getting closer to driving themselves, but they still need humans to build them. And because people aren’t quite as durable as robots, it’s trying to make those jobs easier by developing a suit with Ekso Bionics that takes the stress out of working long hours on a car assembly floor.
Ekso, founded in 2005 in California, builds exoskeletons, essentially robotic assistive systems that people strap into to make walking, lifting, and standing easier. It’s worked with the US military to build suits for soldiers.
The system Ekso developed with Ford, called the EksoVest, doesn’t use any motors to make working on factory lines less stressful, and it’s nothing like what you see in movies, as it simply uses hydraulics to redistribute weight so that workers can comfortably raise their arms above their heads for extended periods of time.
The suit can be worn by anyone from 5 ft to 6 ft 4 inches tall, and can provide lift assistance up to 15 pounds per arm. Some assembly-line workers at the average Ford plant lift their arms 4,600 times a day—or about 1 million times a year, the company said. Although Ford makes its assembly lines as ergonomic as possible for its workers—even using motion-capture and virtual-reality technologies to model how humans will fit into new production lines it’s designing—in some factories, workers find themselves in strenuous situations many times a day to build Ford’s vehicles.
Ford has given the Ekso suit to four employees in two of its Detroit-area plants, and brought a suit to Quartz’ office to let me test out how it felt to wear one. After strapping into the suit, which was a similar experience to putting on a rock-climbing harness, I didn’t really feel like I was carrying much extra weight.
When the suit was switched on, I immediately felt the difference. When I lifted my arms about 90 degrees, the support system kicked in, and it was almost felt like I was leaning on an invisible ledge; I could’ve kept my arms raised in that position forever.
We tested lifting some light cases we had in our video studio, which were difficult to hold up for long without the suit on. Wearing the suit, I had a very minor version of the reaction I’d expect to have if someone gave me an Iron Man suit. I felt more capable, albeit slightly awkward. My motions were a little jerkier, but I definitely felt stronger.
Ford didn’t disclose how much each suit cost, but said it plans to test the suits in more of its factories across the world. As the working population in developed countries ages and people continue to work longer into retirement age, perhaps suits like these will become more commonplace. Other companies, like Hyundai and Panasonic, are developing similar suits to help laborers in Japan, whose working population may halve over the next half-century.