Exoskeleton suits transform car factory workers into human robots

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Wearable technology takes on a different meaning in the world of automobiles. As employees get older and younger and avoid the idea of ​​working on a factory production line, auto companies are looking for ways to lighten the load.

High tech exoskeletons are being studied by companies like Hyundai Motor Co., Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. The technology originally developed to help people who can no longer walk or stand alone, relieves fatigue and prevents injuries. It’s especially useful for repetitive processes that can’t be automated, even when robotics is making great strides in the industry.

All types of businesses have an “emphasis on corporate social responsibility and occupational safety” and strive to prevent workplace injuries, said Xu Zhenhua, founder of ULS Robotics, a Shanghai-based company that provides exoskeletons to automakers, airport operators, and other industrial manufacturers.

ULS Robotics is developing three exoskeletons that workers can wear to hold and lift heavy equipment. One is for the upper body, another goes around the waist, and the third focuses on the lower limbs. The first two weigh about seven kilograms each and allow the wearer to lift another 20 kilograms. They are powered by a lithium battery with a lifespan of around six to eight hours.

Xu said the exoskeletons are most useful along general assembly lines, which are still to some extent handcrafted. Just like scooters and shared bicycles have helped Solve the “last mile” problem for e-commerce deliveries and commuters, and exoskeletons can also help solve the “last person” problem on a production line, he said.

Engineers wearing the Hyundai chairless exoskeleton work on a Hyundai Medical wearable exoskeleton robot in the center at the laboratory in Uiwang, South Korea, Jan. 31.
Fotograf: SeongJoon Cho / Bloomberg

GM is testing some ULS Robotics products. Other customers are China Southern Airlines Co., Shanghai Pudong International Airport and the new Beijing Daxing International Airport. Exoskeletons could be particularly useful for ground handling personnel, Xu said.

The Future Capital Discovery Fund is an early investor in ULS Robotics. Founding partner Huang Mingming said the exoskeletons solve a problem that not only China but the whole world is facing.

“In the past 30 years, China has gained an advantage because we have had a lot of young people and an inexpensive workforce,” said Huang. “However, aging and a declining birth rate started from the early 2010s. While the auto industry is already highly automated, experienced employees are still required for final assembly. It’s not interchangeable. ”

The South Korean Hyundai has an exoskeleton that employees can use to perform overhead tasks and another exoskeleton that transforms into a chair so employees can complete tasks without bending.

Fotograf: SeongJoon Cho / Bloomberg

“The population is getting older and the people who work in factories are getting older too, which means the costs associated with occupational accidents are increasing,” said Hyun Dong-jin, head of the Hyundai Robotics Lab. “Portable devices have become important in reducing these costs.”

Hyundai will test the exoskeletons it makes Hyundai Rotem Co. in Korea and plans to ship them to one of their factories in Alabama before a global rollout later this year. Eventually, she hopes to sell them to other automakers.

Hyundai isn’t the first automaker to use exoskeletons. In 2018, Ford said employees at 15 plants performing repetitive overhead tasks would receive assistance from a new exoskeleton technology for the upper body – but it’s one of the few they’re developing in-house. (Ford has partnered with Ekso Bionics of Richmond, California.)

Hyun said the sensors that attach wearables could also help in the development of Hyundai’s autonomous vehicles. The Company In December it was announced that it would spend 20 trillion won ($ 17 billion) over the next six years on new technology to ease the switch to electric and self-driving cars.

Sensors can also help make people more efficient, Xu said. “In an automated process, it is easier to spot inefficiencies in the work and make adjustments,” he said. “It is more difficult to know the status of an employee. Wearable gear can help. ”

– With the support of Kyunghee Park and Chunying Zhang

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