How Construction Exoskeletons Work: An Animated Guide

Exoskeletons are slowly making their way into the construction industry to increase safety and productivity for all workers. These machines aim to reduce accumulated strain gained from repetitive and prolonged tasks throughout the work day. These tasks range from screwing car bolts overhead in a car factory to drilling into walls while holding up heavy equipment.

These tools range from supporting a worker’s back, legs and hands to supporting the user’s entire body. Read on to learn how exoskeletons are improving both safety and productivity in the construction industry.

What Are Exoskeletons?

Exoskeletons are wearable machines suited with motorized joints that aim to minimize strain and injury by providing lift support, weight dispersion, posture correction and other capabilities. Exoskeletons are sometimes referred to as exosuits. These machines are mainly used for physical rehabilitation, but are increasingly used by workers in construction and manufacturing.

Many contractors are confident that wearable technology, like construction exoskeletons, will improve the construction industry. The 2018 Q4 Commercial Construction Index found that:

  • 23% of contractors believe they’ll adopt wearable technology onsite in the next three years.
  • Nearly three quarters of contractors believe wearable technology will improve onsite safety.
  • More than 1 in 3 contractors believe wearable technology can improve labor productivity.

Depending on the manufacturer, exoskeletons are purely mechanical or operate with a mix of mechanics and electricity. The frames can be comprised of hard material, like metal, or soft materials, like cloth and textiles,  depending on the suit and its function.

types of exoskeletons

Mechanical exoskeletons use no electricity. Users enjoy longevity in the field since they don’t need recharging nor does the user need to carry a power source. Most mechanical exoskeletons take weight from a specific area of the body (like the arms and shoulders) and redistribute it to another (like the core and waist) to reduce strain and fatigue.

Partial or fully electric exoskeletons are typically more powerful than mechanical exoskeletons and handle more weight. They can target more specific areas, like the hand, and increase pressure and strength where needed.

The main drawback of electric exoskeletons is their need for power. See below to learn more about their limitations.

  • Maintaining power: To maintain electric exoskeletons, you’ll need to either replace the batteries or recharge the suits to power them back up.
  • Added weight: Batteries also add weight, potentially impeding mobility.
  • Extra time needed: You sometimes need to wait for the suits to cool off before replacing the batteries.
  • Increased hazard: Depending on the model, you may need to manage cables from the suit to its power source.

Benefits of Construction Exoskeletons

Construction work involves several tasks that can potentially lead to injury as we’ve mentioned. In fact, everyday activities like lifting and carrying heavy objects are the leading cause of strain injuries in construction. Certain construction exoskeletons directly combat these issues. The CDC reported that using an exoskeleton decreased pressure on the spine and decreased fatigue, among other findings. Below are a few benefits of using construction exoskeletons.

  • Reduces injury and strain: Exoskeletons distribute weight more evenly and reduce strain on different parts of the body. This can lead to a decreased risk of long-term injuries for construction workers.
  • Increases productivity: Workers using construction exoskeletons experience less fatigue and can complete more work than their bodies can usually handle due to the decreased strain.
  • Opens employment opportunities: Contractors who are normally limited by age and physical capabilities can endure more strenuous activities.

How Does an Exoskeleton Work?

Exoskeletons work in various ways depending on the part of the body they’re outfitted for and the way they’re powered.

Many exoskeletons shift weight from one part of the body to other parts, like from your arms to your legs, to reduce continuous strain, increase endurance and improve productivity. The process to accomplish this varies between the different types of exoskeletons. For example, some mounted arm exosuits achieve this by using a counterbalance that transfers weight on the arm down to the ground.

Other exoskeletons aim to enhance the user’s strength. For example, power gloves can be used to increase grip strength for users who have trouble grasping tools. This is accomplished using sensors in the glove to add extra force in the user’s hand and improve grip.

Several construction exoskeletons are personalized to fit the user’s body type and most come in different sizes. Exoskeletons today are becoming more sleek and lightweight to make them easier to wear throughout a long work day and maneuver through work areas. Some companies also allow customers to trial the product and offer training to ensure they understand their exoskeleton’s capabilities.

Types of Construction Exoskeletons

There are several types of exoskeletons that specifically assist construction workers. We’ve classified these suits based on the area of the body they support. Read our list below to learn all about the benefits of varying construction exoskeleton types.

Power Gloves

exoskeleton power gloves animation

Power gloves fit around the hand to improve dexterity for those who experience weakness or other issues with grasping tools and materials. Improved grip is helpful when carrying heavy hand tools or picking up objects.

The Ironhand from Bioservo is a soft power glove that detects the user’s natural movement via sensors. The glove senses when the user is about to grip an object and increases power based on the object’s weight. The glove also collects data to assess gripping situations that pose an ergonomic risk to the user.

Arm and Shoulder Support

arm and shoulder support exoskeleton

These exosuits support workers who lift heavy tools and materials above the waist. Arm and support exosuits are ideal for overhead tasks like drilling, cutting and grinding. They support both shoulders and arms to lessen the strain of continuously holding heavy tools for an extended period of time.

The Ekso Bionics’ EksoVest uses springs in both arms to give the user lift assistance while the Airframe Exoskeleton from Levitate Technologies uses a pulley system to achieve this task. SuitX’s shoulderX uses springs to support the user. These are all good examples of shoulder support exoskeletons since they are lightweight, low profile and do not impede mobility.

Back Support

back support exoskeleton

Back support exosuits typically fit around your shoulders, back and waist to reduce stress on the back from lifting heavy objects. Some back support exoskeletons correct your posture when bending or lifting depending on the manufacturer.

The V22 ErgoSkeleton from Strong Arm Tech acts as a “coach” and provides feedback to the user when they are not safely bending. The design of suitX’s backX exosuit focuses more on reducing stress on the back and spine.

Standing and Crouching Support

standing and crouching support exoskeleton

These exosuits lock in place to reduce pressure on knees and legs and distribute weight down to the ground. This reduces strain on joints and muscles when in a standing or crouching position for a period of time.

It also gives users the option to “sit” when chairs aren’t available or would otherwise impede safety or productivity the work zone. This is a helpful feature for construction workers who spend lots of time standing during the work day.

The Chairless Chair 2.0 from Noonee introduces improvements from their previous model including a decrease in the product’s overall weight and updated materials for comfort and breathability. The legX from suitX is compatible with tool belts and offers custom work boots for added comfort. Both products recognize when a user is walking, crouching and standing and adjusts accordingly.

Whole-Body Suits

whole body exoskeleton

Whole-body exosuits provide support throughout the body to minimize strain, maximize productivity and enhance strength. You can find whole-body suits that are both mechanical and electrical, each coming with their own sets of pros and cons as we’ve mentioned earlier.

Sarcos is planning to eliminate problems with their newest full-body electric suit, the Guardian XO. A single charge can last up to eight hours and requires only 400 watts of power (90 percent less than similar machines) to operate while walking at a normal pace. Users can also “hot-swap” batteries without losing power to this suit.

Take a look at our infographic below for a summary of the types of construction exoskeletons.

Sources: Constructible | Exoskeleton Report | HG | Ekso Bionics | Levitate | Wired | The Robot Report | Ford | How Stuff Works | Levitate