An Exciting Future For Exoskeletons

When it comes to the robotics market, automation-enabling devices like cobots and 5G robots tend to garner a lion’s share of the attention. However, there is one technology that has flown under the radar yet is poised to make just as big of an impact – exoskeletons. By 2030, global revenues will reach $6.8 billion in this emerging market, with passive variations being a dominant force.

What is Exoskeleton Technology?

Exoskeletons are a type of augmented technology designed to bolster human performance in physically demanding tasks by supporting body parts like the hands, lower back, legs, and the upper body. This reduces the energy needs of workers when lifting, transporting, and holding tools, boxes, and other industrial assets safely. With this deployment, the frequency of musculoskeletal disorders is significantly reduced.

Now consider the astounding monetary loss that work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSD) can cost a company. According to Injury Facts, injuries cost companies US$163.9 billion per year collectively. It can be broken down into the following:

  • US$44.8 billion for wage and human performance loss
  • US$34.9 billion in medical expenses
  • US$61 billion in administrative expenses

Figure 1: Warehouse worker using a wearable exoskeleton device for lifting a pallet, relieving the hands, arms, legs, and back from strain.

Warehouse worker carrying a pallet while wearing an exoskeleton suit

Passive Vs. Powered Exoskeletons

There are two distinct types of exoskeletons  – passive and powered.  The passive variation do not have any power source, and they serve mainly to increase strength and provide stability to end-users. On the other hand, powered exoskeleton technology utilizes some form of energy to power sensors, actuators, and other tools. Most currently in use are passive, mostly because they are more affordable and they address specific challenges or use cases.

The next step in the evolution of exoskeleton design is to integrate them with the Internet of Things (IoT) to capture data and provide insights to leadership teams. Eventually, this technology will need to integrate with robotic arms, collaborative robots, and mobile robots through advanced location technologies, haptics, and gesture control.

Augmentation Over Automation

While most robots focus on automation, exoskeletons can help human workers by enhancing safety and productivity, especially in the industrial space.

To that end, organizations such as NASA, Boeing, and GM have already started deploying passive exoskeletons and making them a standard part of their protective equipment guidelines. Toyota is another company betting big on the technology, as they have deployed hundreds of suits designed by Levitate Technologies in plants around the United States.

Advantages of Exoskeletons

Here are the advantages of exoskeleton technology in the industrial sector:

  • Lumbar support in the form of chairless chairs and leg support

  • Shoulder support

  • Limb and ligament support via supernumerary robotics

  • Tool holding with zero-gravity arms

  • Motor movement (actuators and fuel cells)

The greatest advantage of these suits and components is the promised increase in human performance (workplace productivity). With less bodily fatigue and reduced energy needs, each individual worker can complete more tasks during a shift. Besides that, many tasks can simply be automated, which saves time and energy.

Drivers for Adoption

Price points are not exactly earth-shattering for exoskeleton technologies, usually priced in the thousands. For example, upper body units are less than US$2,000 and will get down to almost US$1,000 by 2028. Keep in mind, that bulk purchasing further reduces costs.

Market data for passive exoskeleton revenue world markets: 2018 to 2028

Labor shortages were bad enough before the COVID-19 pandemic. The manufacturing workforce is considered quite old, meaning young people are not inclined to take those types of jobs. Not only does this mean industry companies need to try and increase the productivity of each worker, but each worker is at high risk of musculoskeletal disorders. Fortunately, a human exoskeleton can help solve both these problems.

As the industrial sector becomes more digitized, managers want to get their hands on more data points that can be used for strategic decision-making. Exoskeletons serve as the bridge between robotics and smart wearables placed on the human body, providing a holistic view of the performance of workspaces.

Another key driver for the adoption of these wearable robotic devices is the efforts of innovative vendors and software providers

Emerging Exoskeleton Providers

The deployment of exoskeletons must come with a fully technologically integrated approach. For example, tracking KPIs of a worker’s performance will require a visualization software platform. With an eye toward the future, two major suppliers are making inroads in the present. German Bionic Systems (GBS) and Sarcos are staking out a foothold in the industrial market. GBS has developed an IoT platform and will continue ramping up production now that it has a new factory.

Sarcos is beginning to test its products for military infrastructure through a slew of contracts with the U.S. government. The Japanese market is thriving through companies like Cyberdyne and Panasonic Atoun, while the opportunity presented by China is still in its infancy.

There are also other companies like Fourier Intelligence that have developed EXOPS, an open-source platform that helps reduce the time-to-market for manufacturers building from scratch. The EXOPS platform can also connect the exoskeletons with wearable devices like headsets and smart glasses.

Ultra-Wide Band and 5G Enable Real-Time Location Tracking

Wired technologies will not be satisfactory for a workplace with numerous Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) devices. Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, 802.15.4, Ultra-Wide Band (UWB), and other short-range wireless are better options.

UWB delivers the most accurate positioning technology for applications that are deployed indoors thanks to its low frequencies working well in an environment that consists of a lot of metal. On the downside, UWB deployment is expensive and suffers from low battery life, which makes industry players think twice about using this connection.

Factories in the long-term future will likely run entirely on a 5G network. Its ultra-low latency is perfect for connecting multiple devices and communicating critical data back to operators via the telco cloud. 5G is also useful for optimizing large fleets of exoskeletons as it enables the collection of time-series data, images, videos, and voice data.

Market Forecasts

Investments in industrial exoskeletons are going to be explosive for the foreseeable future. According to ABI Research’s most recent market update, revenue in the industrial market segment will grow at a CAGR of 43.8% between 2021 and  2030, to reach a market value of US$3.9 billion by the end of the decade. This makes the industrial market segment the biggest adopter of wearable robotics, closely followed by the commercial segment, then to a lesser degree, the military segment.

Within the industrial segment, manufacturing accounts for over half of all exoskeleton shipments and revenue, followed by Energy/Utilities and Oil/Gas.

Exoskeleton revenue by market segment

Although passive exoskeleton shipments significantly outpace powered ones, it’s the latter that generates a greater amount of revenue across all verticals. For example, in 2023, there will be 46,000 passive shipments and just 14,000 powered shipments. Yet powered revenue will be US$127 million more than passive. By 2030, powered revenue will surpass US$5 billion, which is nearly twice as much as passive. This goes to show just how much more of a financial investment it is to purchase fully active (powered) suits.

Passive exoskeleton revenue vs powered exoskeleton revenue 2021 to 2030

The United States, Germany, China, South Korea, and Japan are the regions adopting exoskeletons the most, accounting for 77% of global revenue in 2022. By 2030, that number will go down to 68% as later adopters in some other countries cut into the market share. But that’s not to say these leaders aren’t going to continue growing.

Revenue for Exoskeletons by Region 2021 to 2030

 

Challenges for Early Adopters 

Between the added weight and the technical difficulty of implementing zero-gravity arms, exoskeletons can be difficult to deploy en masse, and it can even cause anxiety for workers. Companies may also find the investment in robotics and software technology a difficult pill to swallow as advancements in mechatronics is slower-paced than software innovation, hindering the maximum potential of exoskeleton deployment.

Another key challenge facing the market is the complication of calculating an ROI. How do you measure ROI? Is it fewer work-related injuries? Increased productivity? If it’s the latter, it can take years before seeing tangible results, making key stakeholders skeptical.

Infrastructure shortcomings will be the main issue for the Small-to-Medium Enterprises (SMEs) who are potentially the target mass market for exoskeleton products. To make sure that SMEs are capable of receiving and storing exoskeleton suits and components, vendors will need to strike up partnerships with ecosystem integrators or turn to in-house solutions.

Exoskeleton Examples

This next section takes a look at several examples of exoskeletons to provide a better overview of how the technology works.

Exoskeleton Example #1: Esko Bionics EVO

EVO, developed by Esko Bionics, supports the weight of a worker’s arms, which takes the load off of the worker’s shoulders and arms when lifting something overhead. Between 5-15lbs of lift assistance per arm can be achieved with the EVO vest. All the worker has to do is wrap the vest around the waist, allowing for a full range of motion when standing.

Figure 2: EVO Vest (Source: Esko Bionics)

Photo of Esko Bionics' EVO exoskeleton vest

Exoskeleton Example #2: Ottobock's Paexo Thumb

The Paexo thumb, made by another German company called Ottobock (who has acquired SuitX), reduces thumb strain by as much as 70% by diverting much of the forces to other parts of the hand. This exoskeleton example also highlights the need for protecting fingertips from mechanical impacts like clipping and plugging.

Figure 3: Paexo Thumb (Source: Ottobock Paexo)

Image of the Paexo Thumb, developed by Ottobock

 

Exoskeleton Example #3: Laevo FLEX and V2.50

Dutch-based company Laevo offers two products to support the back: Laevo FLEX and Laevo V2.5. FLEX is the better of the two iterations as it delivers 2x higher peak support torque and 3x more energy return than the Laevo V2.5. Laevo FLEX is designed to let workers walk kilometers every day without having to play with the on/off buttons. Further, Laevo FLEX enables dynamic lifting, it’s comfortable and flexible for all body shapes and is resistant to dust and water.

Figure 4: Woman wearing a Laevo FLEX suit while lifting a box (Source: Laevo)

Photo of female worker lifting a box while wearing the Laevo FLEX exoskeleton suit

Exoskeleton Example #4: Hyundai's VEX

Hyundai’s wearable Vest Exoskeleton (VEX) is designed to be much lighter than similar suits and uses a multilink lift assistant module to mimic human shoulder joint movements. With the VEX suit, production line workers gain more load support, mobility, and adaptability when performing tasks that deal with overhead (i.e; bolting the underside of a vehicle, fitting brake tubes, and attaching exhausts). Equipping a worker with the VEX suit is easy as can be because it’s worn just like a backpack.

Figure 4: VEX Exoskeleton Suit (Source: Hyundai)

VEX exoskeleton suit from Hyundai Motors

Steps To Success for Deployment

The manufacturing industry is facing a unique set of challenges, including labor shortages and an aging workforce. While exoskeletons have the potential to help combat these issues, technology providers must make sure that companies can see the potential ROI of investing in the technology.

There must be a viable business model, increasing adoption of Robot as a Service (RaaS), and a demonstrable ability of both providers and end-users to draw insights from collected data. Establishing partnerships with the cloud providers and industrial platforms that will ultimately enable the value add-on needed to differentiate providers will also be key. Furthermore, organizations like the association for exoskeleton industries (VDEI) are important for developing standardization when it comes to best practices.

To learn more, our Exoskeletons for Industrial Use Cases report provides an in-depth analysis of key market trends. Download it today