Hardware chain starts equipping workers with exosuits
Store workers employed by US hardware store Lowe’s are being equipped with exosuits in order to help them lift and move product through the store more efficiently and aid against muscle fatigue.
The wearable robotic suit uses lift-assist technology and has been developed in collaboration with Virginia Tech for Lowe’s store employees.
The technology is currently being piloted at one Lowe’s store in Christiansburg, Virginia.
“Our employees ensure our stores are always ready for customers,” said Kyle Nel, executive director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs, the company’s technology hub. “As a way to support them, we found a unique opportunity to collaborate with Virginia Tech to develop one of the first retail applications for assistive robotic exosuits.”
Dr Alan Asbeck, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and a team of eight graduate and undergraduate students from Virginia Tech’s Assistive Robotics Laboratory helped to develop the new suit to give employees of the chain ‘superpowers’.
The prototype has undergone months of lab testing and it is designed to be as lightweight as possible.
The exosuit is designed to absorb energy and deliver it back to the user, enabling them to exert less force to complete certain movements.
As they bend and stand, carbon fibre in the suit’s legs and back acts like a taut bow ready to launch an arrow, helping them spring back up with greater ease. As a result, commonly lifted objects, like a bag of concrete or a five-gallon bucket of paint, feels significantly lighter to the user.
“Over the past couple years, human assistive devices have become an area of interest,” Asbeck said. “But, our technology is different, not only because of the suit’s soft, flexible elements, but because we’re putting the prototype in a real-world environment for an extended period of time.”
The first four suits are currently in use by the stocking team at the Christiansburg store. During the coming months, Asbeck and his team will work with Lowe’s to assess the physical impact of the suit. Lowe’s will also lead employee engagement studies to better understand the impact of the exosuit on the work experience.