Ford pilot testing upper-body exoskeletons for above-the-head work

Ford pilot testing upper-body exoskeletons for above-the-head work

Ekso Bionics testing worker support systems at two Ford plants.

November 10, 2017
Edited by Robert Schoenberger

Dearborn, Michigan – Ford Motor Co. is partnering with Ekso Bionics to test upper-body exoskeletons on its assembly lines – devices that could allow workers to perform tasks above their heads for longer durations.

Ford engineers estimate that line workers in some plants are performing tasks higher than head level as many as 4,600 times per day.

At this rate, the possibility of fatigue or injury on the body increases significantly.

“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.”

Called EksoVest, the wearable technology elevates and supports a worker’s arms while performing overhead tasks. It can be fitted to support workers ranging from 5ft to 6ft 4”, and provides adjustable lift assistance of 5 lb to 15 lb per arm.

Designed and built for dynamic, real-world environments like factories, construction sites, and distribution centers, the non-powered vest offers protection and support against fatigue and injury by reducing the stress and strain of high-frequency, long-duration activities that can take a toll on the body.

“Working with Ford enabled us to test and refine early prototypes of the EksoVest based on insights directly from their production line workers,” said Russ Angold, co-founder and chief technology officer of Ekso Bionics.

With support from the United Automobile Workers and Ford, EksoVest is being piloted in two U.S. plants, with plans to test in other regions, including Europe and South America.

“The health and safety of our membership has always been our highest priority,” said UAW-Ford Vice President Jimmy Settles. “With the proven success at the piloted locations, we look forward to expanding this technology to our other UAW-Ford manufacturing facilities.”

Between healthcare costs and lost work time, worker injury can be very expensive to automakers, so Ford and its competitors have been working to improve safety and reduce incidents. Between 2005 and 2016, the most recent full year of data, Ford had 83% fewer incidents that resulted in days away, work restrictions, or job transfers – to an all-time low of 1.55 incidents per 100 full-time North American employees.

“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 group vice president, Manufacturing and Labor Affairs.