Exoskeletons create Human Robots at production lines

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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In the world of automobiles, wearable technology like exoskeleton is taking on a new meaning. Car companies are looking for ways to lighten the burden as workers age and younger people shun the concept of operating on a factory production line.

The major automobile companies, including Hyundai Motor Corporation, Ford Motor Corporation and General Motors Corporation, are exploring high-tech exoskeletons. Initially, this technology was designed to support individuals who have lost the ability to walk or stand on their own, but now it eases exhaustion and helps avoid injuries. For repetitive processes that cannot be automated, it is especially useful even as robotics makes major inroads into the industry.

Xu Zhenhua, the founder of ULS Robotics said, all sorts of companies have an “emphasis on corporate social responsibility and labour protection” and are making an effort to avoid workplace-related injuries.

ULS Robotics is a Shanghai-based company which provides exoskeletons for carmakers, airport operators and other industrial manufacturers.

Three exoskeletons that staff can wear to carry and lift heavy equipment are being designed by ULS Robotics. One is for the upper body, another goes around the waist and the lower limbs are the focus of the third. The first two weigh approximately seven kilograms each and allow the wearer to lift an extra 20 kilogram. They are powered by a lithium battery with a life of six to eight hours.

Mr. Xu said, “The exoskeletons are most useful along general assembly lines, which still rely to a degree on manual labour. Just as scooters and shared bicycles have helped solve the “last mile” problem for eCommerce deliveries and commuters, so too can exoskeletons help solve “the last person” problem on a production line.”

Some products from ULS Robotics are being tested by General Motors. China Southern Airlines Corporation, Shanghai Pudong International Airport and the new Beijing Daxing International Airport are the customers. Exoskeletons could be especially useful for ground-handling staff, Mr. Xu added.

Huang Mingming, Founding partner of Future Capital, early investors of ULS Robotics stated, “In the past 30 years, China gained an advantage because we had many young people and a low-cost labor force. However, aging and a declining birthrate started in the early 2010s. While the auto industry is already highly automated, experienced workers are still needed for the final general assembly. That’s not replaceable.”

South Korea’ Hyundai has an exoskeleton to help workers perform overhead tasks and another one that transforms into a chair so that employees can perform tasks without bending.

Hyun Dong-jin, Head of Hyundai’s Robotics Lab said, “The population is getting older and people working in factories are also older, which means costs related to industrial accidents are on the rise. Wearable devices have become important in lowering these costs.”

Hyundai will test the exoskeletons produced in Korea by its Hyundai Rotem unit and expects to ship them to one of its Alabama factories later this year ahead of a worldwide release. Eventually, it aims to market them to other car manufacturers.