In Brief
Working with exoskeleton maker Ekso Bionics, Ford has been piloting the use of an exoskeleton called EksoVest in two of their manufacturing plants in the U.S. The exoskeleton is designed to reduce fatigue from high-frequency activities.

Simple Support

Working in a car factory in this current era isn’t too physically demanding, with robots doing pretty much all of the heavy-lifting. Yet, despite not having to carry so much weight, factory workers in Ford’s car manufacturing plants still do tedious and difficult work, considering how they have to perform overhead tasks repeatedly, up to 4,600 times a day or one million times a year.

To ease this burden and lessen the chances of injury, Ford has partnered with California-based exoskeleton maker Ekso Bionics to trial a non-powered upper body exoskeletal tool called EksoVest in two of the carmaker’s U.S. plants.

Designed to fit workers from five feet to six feet four inches tall, the EksoVest adds some 3 to 6 kilograms (5 to 15 pounds) of adjustable lift assistance to each arm. This exoskeleton is also comfortable enough to wear while providing free arm movement thanks to its lightweight construction.

Image credit: Ford
This exoskeleton is both easy and comfortable to use. Image Credit: Ford 

“Collaboratively working with Ford enabled us to test and refine early prototypes of the EksoVest based on insights directly from their production line workers,” Ekso Bionics co-founder and CTO Russ Angold said in a Ford press release. “The end result is a wearable tool that reduces the strain on a worker’s body, reducing the likelihood of injury, and helping them feel better at the end of the day – increasing both productivity and morale.”

Assistive Enhancements

While this isn’t the first exoskeleton designed to assist the human worker, the EksoVest demonstrates how such tools can prevent injury due to fatigue and provide physically disabled individuals the opportunity to regain lost abilities. Already, exoskeletons are being used to help paraplegics walk, and applications for these technologies are even being expanded to provide support and enhancement for soldiers.

The U.S. trial, made possible with support from the United Automobile Workers, has already shown demonstrated the wonders that the exoskeleton can offer in reducing fatigue from high-frequency tasks. As such, Ford plans to expand their EksoVest pilot program to other regions, which include Europe and South America.

“The health and safety of our membership has always been our highest priority,” said UAW-Ford Vice President Jimmy Settles. “With the proven success at the piloted locations, we look forward to expanding this technology to our other UAW-Ford manufacturing facilities.”