The Japanese company Panasonic announced recently that it will start selling an exoskeleton designed to help workers lift and carry objects more easily and with less risk of injury. The suit was developed in collaboration with a subsidiary company called ActiveLink. It weighs just over 13 pounds and attaches to the back, thighs, and feet, enabling the wearer to carry 33 pounds of extra load. The device has been tested by warehouse handlers in Osaka, Japan, and is currently in trials with forestry workers in the region.
Though they have mainly been tested in medical and military settings, the technology is starting to move beyond these use niches, and it could make a difference for many manual laborers.
The Panasonic suit includes a lightweight carbon-fiber motor; sensors activate the motor when the wearer is lifting or carrying an object. With ActiveLink, the company is testing another, much larger suit designed to help carry loads as heavy as 220 pounds.
Some other companies are showing an interest in technology that can assist workers and help prevent injury. In collaboration with ergonomics researchers at the Technical University of Munich, the German carmaker BMW has given workers a custom-made, 3-D-printed orthotic device that fits over the thumb and helps them perform repetitive tasks. Another German carmaker, Audi, is testing a wearable device from a company called Noonee, which provides back support for workers who need to perform repetitive crouching motions.