The trend of Exoskeletons involves wearable devices built to support or enhance human physical capabilities. While passive exoskeletons absorb energy from movements and relinquish power when support is needed, active devices are externally powered and can sense and react to specific movements of the human body.
With over 1.7 billion people affected worldwide, musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are one of the most common work-related health issues. Exoskeletons, originating from the healthcare and military industries, appeared on the market for industrial use in logistics more than a decade ago to reduce the development and effects of MSDs in the workplace. Typically classified by the regions of the body they support, both active and passive devices have been improved over the last 2 years in terms of usability, form factor, and performance. In 2021, the exoskeleton market was valued at 257.9 million USD and is predicted to grow with a CAGR of 18% from 2022 to 2030, highlighting anticipation of further breakthroughs and wider adoption in workplaces.
While the Exoskeletons trend is expected to have only minor impact on efficiency gains within supply chain operations, the technology is understood to positively impact employee health and safety. As logistics operations face an aging workforce and growing labor shortages, exoskeletons capable of reducing physical strain on the human body have become a topic of interest for logistics organizations seeking to limit the particularly high sick leave rates per full-time equivalent (FTE) affecting the industry. In addition, the implementation of exoskeletons in operations could provide differentiation to attract labor. However, large-scale deployments have yet to be seen, mostly because currently available devices offer support only for specific sets of movement, limiting their application to niche use cases.
Preventing workplace injuries increases worker health and happiness, but it also saves organizations money in many ways.
Relevance to the Future of Logistics
Lower back pain is the main contributor to musculoskeletal burdens and among the most common workplace injuries and illnesses resulting in days away from work. Meanwhile, handling and frequently lifting heavy loads are some of the main risk factors for lower back pain.
Exoskeletons specifically designed for lower back support can be beneficial for workers bending, lifting, and carrying heavy objects like boxes or tires in facilities. Active exoskeletons like the Cray X from German Bionic and the passive devices of Ottobock, Laevo, and HeroWear can all be implemented for specific use cases and help supply chain organizations improve employee health and safety in the workplace and reduce costs arising from preventable injuries.
Neck and shoulders have both been identified as body areas widely affected by MSDs and associated symptoms. Activities involving either static overhead work, such as inspecting and repairing the underside of delivery vehicles, or continually handling weight above shoulder height, like when loading the top spaces of containers, are considered major risk factors for injury.
Exoskeleton providers like Levitate Technologies, Ekso Bionics, and Skelex offer passive devices specifically built for these activities, acting as support structures for the upper arms to reduce strain in the neck and shoulders. While very task-specific in supply chains, these devices can help reduce injury and soreness for logistics workers participating in these activities and maintain their quality of work.
Many facilities in supply chains do not accommodate seating in workspaces because of space constraints or for operational safety reasons. As a result, workers must be always on their feet when working – a requirement that can further restrict the industry’s talent pool.
Tech companies such as Noonee and Archelis have developed space-saving solutions often referred to as ‘chairless-chairs.’ Nimbly attached to the legs of the worker, these devices fold out when the worker squats, providing them with chair-like support for resting, only to retract when the worker again stands. Although the cumulative impact of these chairless-chairs in supply chains has yet to be fully understood, like other types of exoskeleton, they have potential in attracting prospective workers who otherwise would not qualify or not want such physically taxing jobs.
Industrial exoskeletons have reached a critical tipping point, finally achieving satisfactory levels of user acceptance in workplace trials. While it is expected that devices will become cheaper and even more comfortable and flexible to wear in the near future, we here at DHL question if a universal augmenting device for diverse use cases will be developed soon. Instead, we assume that multiple devices will still be required in the foreseeable future, with each supporting a different, singular task. Still, these tools can help logistics organizations today by not only bolstering the health and safety of workers but also expanding the pool of candidates who qualify for physically arduous responsibilities.
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- Reuters (2019): Workers in pain: Employers take a new twist to prevent costly injuries
- Grand View Research (2022): Exoskeleton Market Size & Share Report, 2022-2030
- National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) (2021): Workers’ Compensation: Benefits, Coverage, and Costs
- World Health Organization (WHO) (2022): Musculoskeletal Health
- IntechOpen (2019): Work-related Musculoskeletal Disorders