Those who work in logistics will soon get a helping hand thanks to Levitate Technologies, which is currently working on using exoskeletons to aid in loading and off-loading shipments.
“It’s a helping hand when you need it and it disappears when you don’t,” said Joseph Zawaideh, co-founder of Levitate.
The privately funded San Diego start-up has been making exoskeletons for a couple of years, but only within the last three to four months has the company looked at exoskeletons for the logistics industry.
“We’re just starting in that space…There are two types of freight loading and unloading: From the ground to a shelf or from shoulder level to above shoulder level. But a lot of it requires the arms to be lifted at shoulder level or above shoulder level,” said Zawaideh.
“Whenever that environment is going on, that’s when we think the AIRFRAME is a great fit.”
The AIRFRAME is a lightweight frame with supports for the arms. It has no power source and instead runs by a system of pullies, cables and springs. This makes the unit light and breathable something Zawaideh says makes his unit different from others.
“We come in four different sizes to accommodate different people’s bodies in terms of different shapes and sizes…It is modular, so you can have different force levels, different sizes, those are differentiators.”
Levitate has already started lining up tests with different logistics companies to gauge the functionality of the AIRFRAME. The start-up has also completed a material handling task test with John Deere and tests with a fulfillment centre in regards to packing and shipping materials.
“The idea here is that at the end of the day, or at the end of the week – these freight loaders and unloaders and packers – fatigue kicks in near the end of the day and especially at the end of the week, and the productivity can be impacted and of course they can have shoulder challenges. The device can be thought of as an anti-fatigue technology to make the logistics worker less fatigued and very possibly more productive,” said Zawaideh.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, operators, fabricators, and laborers; and persons in technical, sales, and administrative support occupations accounted for 58% of all musculoskeletal cases (MSD). The manufacturing and services industry sectors together accounted for about half of all MSD cases.
Musculoskeletal disorders account for nearly 70 million physician office visits in the United States annually, and an estimated 130 million total health care encounters including outpatient, hospital, and emergency room visits. In 1999, about one million people took time away from work to treat work-related MSD for the lower back and upper extremities.
The Institute in Medicine estimates the economic burden of MSDs as measured by compensation costs, lost wages, and lost productivity, are between $45 and $54 billion annually.
So how much does it cost to have an exoskeleton? Levitate’s AIRFRAME is priced at $5,000 and while Zawaideh declined to comment on how many his company has sold he did say it was “in the thousands.”
Initially, Levitate was marketing it’s exoskeleton to surgeons in order to combat fatigue while in the operating room. Since then, it has been targeting the automotive, aerospace, and heavy equipment manufacturing, and pharmaceutical manufacturing sectors. Zawaideh said his company has more than 100 global customers.
“The device and the technology is really great,” he said. “It’s got so many different applications that we can’t target them all simultaneously, especially since we’re a start-up company.”
The start-up is focusing on large industrial application and has sun its surgical exoskeleton into a separate company.
“We’ve had tremendous success in selling to the automotive manufacturers. We’re off to a really good start there,” said Zawaideh.
He added that sales were significant enough that clinical studies were preformed that measured muscle activity with electromyography, wherein eight sensors were attached to the upper bodies of workers as they performed their duties.
“John Deere and Toyota did these studies on their workers – on the job building cars – and the results were statistically significant and they provided a strong level of over-exertion released by 20% to 30%, not just for the shoulder, but for the lower back.
“As a result, Toyota realized that certain jobs that are overhead, that exceed certain thresholds, now are mandated to wear the AIRFRAME exoskeleton. So, that has never been done in the history of upper-body passive exoskeletons.”
So, what’s ahead for Levitate? Well, the company is currently developing a number of accessories for their exoskeleton that will benefit the head and lower extremities of the body. Zawaideh believes that exoskeletons will become more mainstream where companies will use the technology as regularly as they use other personal protective equipment.
“Maybe one day it will even become something that a consumer can buy at a big box (store) like Home Depot,” he said.