Exoskeleton technology is getting a trial run at Boeing to make workers’ jobs less strenuous

The exovest is designed to take the pressure off the muscles, reducing risk of injury and fatigue.
Updated: Feb. 26, 2019 at 4:01 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Boeing is testing a device that could be a possible solution to alleviating some of the stress and strain.

“It all started with a mechanic that went to a football game and saw a cameraman actually running around with his camera rigged onto a vest,” Kadon Kyte, engineer with Boeing Research & Technology said.

“He came to us and said, ‘That looked as though it made the cameraman’s job of holding the camera a whole lot easier. I wonder if that will help me when I’m holding tools,’” Kyte said.

That request sent engineers Kyte and Chris Reid on a journey to research companies that develop technology that would help Boeing mechanics, painters and electricians do their jobs with less strain, pain and risk of injury.

Team members who build the 787 DreamLiners at the North Charleston site, hold their arms out for extended periods of time, or their heads are tilted, and their hands are suspended above their shoulders.

They do this work using hand tools that weigh anywhere from five to 15 pounds all day long. The pressure on those upper body parts can be excruciating, leading to health issues and injuries.

Specifically, the exovest, a type of exoskeleton, is worn on the upper body like a backpack. A switch activates a system of springs that supports the arms and neck. It feels as though it’s gently holding the user’s arms up in the air, freeing the hands to do work with ease.

"So if you're doing highly repetitive work, doing highly exhaustive work, when you wear this system, it takes on some of that load, so that you don't have to feel so tired by the end of the day," Reid said.

Reid, who is an engineer with the Boeing Environment, Health & Safety team, says the device takes the burden off the muscles. He and Kyte have been researching, testing and evaluating the exovest since late 2017.

"So we went from evaluating people with little, to no injury history, and once that box was checked, then we get to the point of increasing our risk exposure," Reid said.

"We're bringing in employees with injury history and so that's the phase we're in right now, making sure we can use it with every single employee we have in the factory," Reid said.

Kyte says team members working with the device, have reported effective and even surprising results.

Kyte said team members are telling him, "I'm noticing when I go home, I'm not as fatigued. So if my son or my daughter is asking me, hey let's go outside, let's play catch, normally when I would probably say no, now I'm like you know what, let's go outside and do it."

Reid and Kyte train all the team members who use the exovest. That means 30 minutes of classroom time and then an hour-and-a-half of hands-on training. Workers can usually put the vest on in about a minute, and they also have to be able to help someone else put the device on properly.

"This is not a robotic system that's gonna go out and do the work. The user, the men and women we are putting in these systems, they're the ones that are controlling it. So the more open they are to trusting it, the more effective these systems can be," Kyte said.

Right now, there are 38 exovests on the Boeing North Charleston campus, 30 of them have been approved for use. The springs provide support in four levels, anywhere from five pounds up to 15 pounds.

While they are pleased so far, Reid and Kyte say there's still plenty more testing to be done, before the exovest gets cleared to take flight.

"So we want to make sure the employees that we expose to it are gonna be able to use the system and not bring up any past injuries or create new injuries. So we're very methodical about the process, and why we're doing it," Reid said.

Boeing is one of the first aerospace companies testing out this technology.

It plans to wrap up evaluations this year, then the exovest needs a thumbs up from the company's chief physician, as well as its research and health and safety teams. If all goes as planned, it could roll out companywide after that.

Boeing did not disclose how many exovests it plans to purchase, or how much the devices cost.

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