Hyundai’s Workers Will Wear This Exoskeleton And Soon, You Might Too
Such tools, if we may call them that, are coming, and they’ll be used outside car factories as wellby Tudor Rus, on
Exoskeletons, in their purest biological sense, are a common sight among insects, especially arthropods. The purpose of such an outer armor is to protect the organism’s softer tissues. As opposed to humans or mammals, for example, which have grown internal skeletons or endoskeletons that are covered in soft tissue. In the broader sense, an exoskeleton is also a device that can gift whoever wears it with more strength and endurance - not quite full-cyborg stuff yet, but pretty close.
As it turns out, such exoskeletons are popular in car plants but also in other fields. Ford’s factory workers use such contraptions as of 2018, as do BMW’s and Toyota’s. We’ve mentioned the automotive sector because Hyundai just came up with a new exoskeleton design that’s meant to “alleviate the burden in overhead work.” Let’s check it out.
Meet the Wearable Vest Exoskeleton, aka VEX
Before we get to the topic, you’ll want to know that exoskeletons meant to boost human strength are not a novelty, as their existence can be traced back in the 1960s, when they had to satisfy military purposes. According to The Verge, Japan’s Panasonic, Honda, and Cyberdyne have been marketing exoskeletons as a means of easing up the daily burdens on its aging population. But we’re not yet to the level of Tony Stark’s exosuits.
That said, the new VEX is essentially a simplified vest or a robotic piece of clothing, if you wish.
Its main goal, according to Hyundai, is to “assist industrial workers who spend long hours working in overhead environments.” What it essentially does is imitate the movement of human joints, thus boosting not only load support but also mobility.
The VEX, in particular, replicates the human shoulder and uses a multi-link muscular assistance setup combined with multiple pivot joints, so there’s no need for a battery pack anymore. In fact, the exoskeleton allows for six different levels of assistance - up to 5.5 kgf, depending on the environment’s requirements. The user can also select the most effective lift assist angle, which comes in handy for those who perform repetitive work and need the extra muscular endurance.
The vest weighs just 2.5 kilos (5.5 pounds) and is secured to the user’s body via two belt buckles that attach on the user’s waist and chest, pretty much like a professional backpack.
Moreover, the back section can be adjusted in length by up to 18 centimeters (inches), so in theory, it fits various body sizes.
Who Will Wear Hyundai’s VEX?
Well, good question. Hyundai provides a hint to the question by saying the VEX is mainly targeted at production-line workers who are primarily doing overhead tasks, as these are the most tiring. For example, the vest could suit someone who, let’s say, is tasked with bolting the underside of a vehicle, or mounting brake tubes, attaching exhausts, and so on.
That being said, we don’t see why not it could pop up as a useful tool for other private companies, as it could definitely be of assistance in storage depots where employees do a lot of crate lifting without relying on machinery. Think just how much potential would such an exoskeleton vest unlock at Amazon or Ikea, for a change, but also in supermarkets and other logistical hubs.
In any case, Hyundai says that the development of its VEX included a pilot program in two of the company’s plants in the U.S., which turned out positive results, allowing the giant to carry on with its VEX plans. At the time of writing, Hyundai was considering implementing the VEX in its plants around the world. The thingamajig is expected to enter production in December 2019 and is expected to also cost 30% less than similar product, which usually sell for $5,000 a piece.
That should price the VEX at around $3,500.
This, however, is not Hyundai’s first product of this sort. In fact, the Koreans will soon release another lightweight wearable called the CEX (Chairless Exoskeleton). It will allow workers to adopt a sitting position without actually needing a stool or a chair. The CEX is even lighter than the VEX, as it tips the scales at 1.6 kilos (3.5 pounds). Don’t be fool by its lightness, though: it can still hold weights of up to 150 kilos (330 pounds), says Hyundai, and just like the VEX, it offers three angle settings (85, 70, and 55 degrees) that help it reduce back and lower body muscle strain by up to 40%.
Here are some numbers that put things into perspective. The International Federation of Robotics (yes, that’s a real thing) says that the wearable industry is growing by 14 percent every year.
Estimates talk about 630,000 commercial robots being sold worldwide by 2021, most of them (around one third-ish) going to the automotive sector. T
o provide even more context, back in 2017, 126,000 robots were bought by the automotive sector alone, which accounted for 33 percent of all commercial robots sold that year.
So, we’ll lay it out for you loud and clear: expect to see more and more such solutions when it comes to human mobility and strength enhancement. And by that, we don’t mean your daily commute, but your ability to lift stuff or even perform basic tasks like around the house. The thing is, fellas, as we’re getting old, our muscles, bones, and joints follow closely. So at some point in time, these exoskeletons will offer us the required support to lift a book to a shelf, or swap a flat tire with a new one, or even sit down or get up from the couch.
For now, they’re beginning to make an entry in more industrial settings, with automakers expressing a particular interest in exoskeletons. But in reality, their application and potential can be harnessed in the medical world as well, so they’ll gradually pass on to that and then straight into our homes. We reckon we’ll sooner rather than later be able to buy one such contraption for a way smaller price than car companies get them today, and all we’ll have to do is click a smartphone screen once or twice before we start waiting for the delivery guy to knock at the door with our order.