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Ford Piloting Exoskeleton Vests for Factory Workers

By: Ryan Gallagher November 20, 2017
By providing lifting support to Ford factory workers, the Ekso exoskeleton vest is helping them to avoid injury. The carmaker intends to expand its use of the technology from its Detroit-area plants to Europe and South America.

Workers at two U.S. Ford factories have started to use exoskeletons, or Ekso Vests, from California’s Ekso Bionics, with the goal of reducing overall fatigue and injury while performing overhead tasks. The vests are being tested at Ford’s Michigan and Flat Rock Assembly Plants and, if all goes well, will see company-wide distribution.

On average, Ford’s factory workers lift their arms in order to perform overhead tasks about 4,600 times every day, and almost 1 million times per year. Unassisted, this repetitive action becomes exponentially dangerous.

“Our goal has always been to keep the work environment safe and productive for the hardworking men and women we rely on across the globe,” said Bruce Hettle, Ford’s vice president of manufacturing and labor affairs. “Investing in the latest ergonomics research, assembly improvements, and lift-assist technologies has helped us design efficient and safe assembly lines, while maintaining high vehicle quality for our customers.”

The Ekso Vests help Ford workers by providing each arm with 5 to 15 lbs. of support while they lift and assemble parts above their head. Tasks that would usually cause pain to a worker’s arms, neck, shoulders, and back become less taxing with Ekso’s new product. The vest does not require a power source, can adjust to fit any person from 5 feet to 6 feet 4 inches tall, and weighs less than 10 lbs.

“My job entails working over my head, so when I get home my back, neck, and shoulders usually hurt,” said Paul Collins, an assembly line worker at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant. “Since I started using the vest, I’m not as sore, and I have more energy.”

Ford officials expect the new partnership with Ekso Bionics to improve the factory work environment for their employees, worldwide. European and South American plants are next on the list of Ekso vest recipients.

While some may feel the future is in the hands of artificially intelligent machines, Ekso and Ford want to put the power back into the hands of humans—or at least into their robotic extensions.

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