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Exoskeletons: Not Just for Iron Man

When exoskeletons are mentioned, something like Iron Man may come to mind — a full body suit that provides strength, protection, maybe even hover capabilities? We wish! But that doesn't mean that what is available for the construction industry isn't just as cool or even more useful.

While full body suits are still under development, current exoskeletons are wearable technology that include vests and frames for supporting particular body parts, such as shoulders or spines. Exoskeletons designed for craft professionals use braces, levers, joints or counterweights to help increase the wearer's strength and endurance and reduce stress caused by repetitive tasks. Versions such as the Ekso VestAirframe and MAX allow the user to hold heavy tools without feeling the weight, are light enough to wear all day and are flexible as to not impede movement.

One of the top goals of exoskeleton developers is to decrease the fatigue that the body undergoes, particularly in industries like construction that are physically difficult, as well as lowering the amount of injuries from strain. Musculoskeletal disorders are the leading cause of injury in the construction industry and research has shown that exoskeletons can decrease pressure on the spine and shoulder discomfort.

The exoskeleton may allow craft professionals to continue working for longer and significantly benefit older workers. There's also the potential to level the field a bit when it comes to utilizing a diverse workforce. While the exoskeleton doesn't provide superhuman strength — the EksoVest adds 5-15 lbs. of lift assistance per arm — it does offer additional support that may help put more construction positions within reach for women.

Advocates of the exoskeleton highlight the potential for wearers to get more work done at higher quality. It makes sense — with the exoskeleton supporting overhead motions or holding tools, it keeps hands and arms steady without fatigue. In one study, welders using the Airframe exoskeleton increased the number of welded joints by 86%, with a quality of work that was significantly higher.

While not quite something out of sci-fi movies like Iron Man or Alien, the exoskeleton can provide craft professionals with something almost as good as superhero powers — more strength and less physical stress. Have you used an exoskeleton in your position? Is it something that your company would use?

Originally published on NCCER.org.