‘Exosuit’ experiment aimed at reducing workers’ fatigue

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A Lowe’s employee in Christiansburg demonstrates the use of exosuits.
Photo courtesy Lowe's

Five Lowe’s employees are wearing the future.

They’re stocking shelves while wearing exosuits — strap-on contraptions that may make the employees’ life better by making it easier for them to lift the buckets, bags and other things that fill the company’s Christiansburg store.

The exosuit is part of a collaboration between Lowe’s and Virginia Tech’s Assistive Robotics Laboratory that’s testing the suit in real life and in the lab.

“There are lots of things which are wearable that work fine for the first 15 minutes,” says Alan Asbeck, a professor who’s leading the project. “But after that,  you’re like, ‘It’s bugging me here’ or something like that. So we’ve worked really hard to make it comfortable for the long run.”

While they’re checking in with the Lowe’s workers regularly, Asbeck and the eight students working on the project also are conducting tests in the lab. People wear the suits and lift things while motion-capture sensors and an apparatus that measures muscle activation record how their bodies perform in the exosuit. That’s useful information, Asbeck says, but no more important than the steady feedback from the Lowe’s workers that Asbeck’s team uses to adjust the suit’s design.

The exosuit looks like a series of rods. They’re essentially leaf springs. Asbeck compares lifting without the suit to jumping off a ladder and climbing back up. Lifting with the suit, he says, is like jumping off a ladder onto a trampoline and bouncing back up.

“When you’re lowering your torso, in the act of bending forward, you are sort of using up energy,” Asbeck explains. “If you don’t have a trampoline at the bottom, your back will have to do the work of lifting yourself back up again. What we do is basically put a spring in there, which is the exosuit, so that it stores the energy from you bending forward and gives it back to you so you can stand up with very little effort.”

The idea is to reduce fatigue, which may reduce injuries. Lowe’s hopes eventually to use the exosuits in all of its stores.

“My goal is to get things to the real world,” Asbeck says. “Lowe’s wants to get things to the real world.”

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