An interesting sidenote to the current human vs. robot competition for jobs emerged last week at the IFA 2018 Tech Expo in Berlin. South Korean appliance giant LG Electronics debuted its most recent development in its CLOi robotics line—its first “human-centric wearable robot.”
It’s called the SuitBot, and it’s a robotic exoskeleton designed to support the legs and augments the capacity of assembly-line and warehouse workers who are required to do heavy lifting over extended periods of time. The support structure also assists walking and standing.
LG’s SuitBot/Photo: LG Electronics
Nicknamed “robot pants” in some of the press coverage, the SuitBot is actually put on as though it were a pair of pants, sliding your feet into sandal-shaped open shoes with straps and securing the whole apparatus with a belt enclosure. The joints of the rig rotate, and embedded systems can sense where fitting is needed and then make the adjustments to customize fit for the comfort of the user.
The exoskeleton should make workers more efficient by providing greater endurance and safety when working with heavy tools or maneuvering heavy objects. Additionally, LG announced that the CLOi SuitBot will be able to connect with several other LG robots, introduced earlier this year at the CES 2018 electronics show. These include a Serving Robot, a Porter Robot, and a Shopping Cart Robot, all “developed for commercial use at hotels, airports, and supermarkets.”
Three of the LG robots: a Porter, a Shopping Cart, and a Cleaning Robot/Photo: LG Electronics
The growing stable that the new exoskeleton joins represents LG’s vision of a network of connected service and industrial robotics.
Exosuits like the SuitBot aren’t new. In 2015, the military, through DARPA (U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) were working on an exoskeleton designed to help soldiers carry heavier loads farther. And in the following year, Hyundai Motor Group designed a robotic exoskeleton for industrial use. It’s a full-body design that includes support and strength for the lower extremities and upper torso.
The Hyundai Wearable Robot 2016/Photo:Hyundai Motor Group
The frame was made to be as light as possible while still providing the power needed to move heavy or hazardous loads. The support decreases wear and damage to knees and hips, and it augments the wearer’s upper-body strength. The company described possible military use that would enable a soldier to heft 110 lbs. of gear and march without experiencing strain.
More recently, Ford Motor Company announced on August 7, 2018, that it was rolling out the EksoVest in 15 of its global manufacturing plants. The upper-body exoskeleton is especially helpful in overhead work on the assembly line.
Ford Worker with EksoVest/Photo:Ford Motor Company
The opening lines of Ford’s press release sum up the value of the system: “Imagine lifting a bag of flour or a watermelon over your head up to 4,600 times a day as part of your job—that is similar to what some Ford employees do every day as they work to build vehicles around the world.” These kinds of repetitive motions contribute to fatigue and can cause physical damage.
After successful trials in two Ford plants here in the United States, the company is now employing the EksoVests in 15 plants in seven countries in Asia Pacific, Europe, and South America. Ford lists the following specifications for the vests: “The EksoVests fit workers ranging from 5 feet 2 inches tall to 6 feet 4 inches tall and provides lift assistance from five pounds to 15 pounds per arm. Ford workers say it’s comfortable because it’s lightweight and not bulky, allowing them to move their arms easily.”
The President and CEO of Ekso Bionics, Jack Peurach, sums up their role in the partnership with Ford this way:
“At Ekso our mission is to augment human capability with wearable technology and robotics that help people rethink current physical limitations and achieve the remarkable.”
In addition to the fully mechanical, AI-assisted robots and robotically enabled human beings, cyborgs must now be part of any future discussions about robotics replacing humans in the workforce.
Ekso uses the label “bionics” to describe their industrial vest, but a more comprehensive term for the workers augmented with partial or full-body exoskeletons like the SuitBot is closer to the original meaning of the term “cyborg.” The word was invented in 1960 by two scientists (Manfred Clynes and Nathan S. Cline), and the definition reads: “A cyborg (short for cybernetic organisms) is a being with both organic and biomechatronic body parts.” Biomechatronic is a mash-up of biology, mechanics, and electronics. The definition includes those with pacemakers embedded in their bodies and front-end frame-assembly workers wearing Ekso Bionics’ vests at Ford.
Moving forward then, the hiring decisions, which normally involve the HR department, the engineers calculating task demands, and those charged with assessing financial costs and returns, all will be deciding between human workers, robots, and cyborgs. Economist Theodore Levitt proclaimed the necessity of this adjustment in his 1960 article “Marketing Myopia.” He advised that every industry must “plot the obsolescence of what now produces their livelihood.” It would seem that now that we’re waist-deep in our brave new data-driven, algorithmic culture, it’s the right time for some of us to don a new, white pair of robot pants, at least at work.