Jonathan Wilkins delves into the emerging world of wearable robotics, or exoskeletons, in defence, aerospace and manufacturing and looks at how companies like Daewoo are leading the charge


Author: Jonathan Wilkins, marketing manager, European Automation

Wearable robotics has been around for a little while now. They can be seen in the medical, defence and aerospace sectors where they aid human movement and augment our potential. We are now starting to see them appear in the manufacturing sector as well.

Those of you who have seen the film Aliens will be familiar with the power loader from the 1986 futuristic space horror classic. Used to move heavy equipment (and fight off intergalactic space parasites – Ed), the device has been unintentionally recreated in South Korea.

However, these exoskeletons are part of a test by Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering, one of the largest ship building companies in the world. The wearable robotic suits are made of light-weight aluminium alloy and steel and are engineered to follow the wearer’s movements.

Straps at the feet, thigh, waist and chest connect the user to the suit and allow the exoskeleton to move with the wearer and bear the heavy loads. A system consisting of hydraulic joints and small electric motors runs along the outside of the leg linking to a backpack, which powers and controls the rig.

The powerful exoskeleton is customisable too. Frames designed for individual tasks can be attached to the backpack, depending on the desired outcome. As well as enhancing the wearer’s lifting potential, the suit can also be used for jobs that require precision. Because the suit takes most of the weight – workers can manipulate heavy components as though they were handling lighter objects.

Feedback from the South Korean shipbuilders has been positive on the whole. The majority were impressed that they were able to move loads repeatedly without strain, but testers reported that they would like to see the suit react faster to movement and have a bigger payload.

In their current prototype stage Daewoo’s exoskeletons can help ship workers lift up to 30kg, but the creators believe that they can increase that to a potential 100kg.

Automation, robotics and assembly

The world’s top three shipbuilding firms are South Korean – Daewoo, Hyundai Heavy Industries and Samsung Heavy Industries. Their shipyards are already renowned for their high level of automation in which robots run a large portion of a hugely complex assembly system. These suits seem to be the next innovative step.

In fact, in a study of these firms’ facilities in 2012, US Navy personnel found that five out of the six yards used robots in some capacity. The sophisticated levels of automation even meant that at one shipyard, robots did 68 per cent of all welding. They also carried out a variety of other jobs – from cutting and grinding steel, to polishing freshly assembled hulls, with minimal human oversight.

The need for such levels of automation is the result of building today’s astounding vessels. Daewoo currently has a $1.9 billion contract from shipping giant Maersk Group to build record breaking 55,000-tonne container ships. Each vessel, 400 metres in length, has space for a staggering 18,000 containers. These ships will be the largest of their kind ever built.

However, robotic exoskeletons aren’t unique to the shipbuilding industry, they could soon be coming to a shelf near you.

New Picture

The Panasonic power suit

Activelink, a subsidiary of Panasonic, has gone one step further and actually named their robotic exoskeleton Power Loader. They plan to mass-produce and sell their robotic suit and the first batch of 1000 could be available as soon as 2015.

For anyone who is interested, the suit will retail for slightly under $5000 and has similar capabilities to that of the Daewoo prototype. Activelink’s wearable robotics let the controller lift up to 30 kg and move at speeds of up to 8kph. Again, the company believes that the payload can be increased to around 100kg.

The included lobster-like pincers don’t possess the necessary hydraulics to make them anywhere near as powerful as a fire fighter’s jaws of life. However, they will come in handy for jobs that require the wearer to maintain a certain level of abstraction from their work, for example working with munitions or radioactive materials.

Daewoo exoskeleton

At the moment, robotic exoskeletons in the manufacturing industry are still at their primary phase. Testers of the Daewoo shipbuilding model reported that they had difficulty negotiating slippery or sloping surfaces and the prototypes cannot yet cope with twisting motions. Not to mention there are some obvious health and safety issues to do with working near water in a suit that weighs 28kg.

As the industry grows, so too will the need for automation and innovation and it likely will not be long before we start seeing more than initial prototypes in this sector.

Understandably, here at European Automation we do not supply our customers with such sophisticated robot exoskeletons. (Demand just is not there, but if you want one get in touch – we will see what we can do). However, the components you are likely to find in these kinds of gadgets – high precision actuators, gears and motors – are a different story.

From the initial supply of power in the electric motor and its control in the inverter, through the transmission of that power in the gearbox and finally its application through the actuator, we are on hand to help you with all of the components you might need in an industrial robot arm.

It is worth mentioning that many of our customers use similar components in a host of other industries – from motors and inverters in elevation and gearing systems in aerospace and defence applications to actuators in the food and beverage or pharmaceutical sectors.

We also supply industrial robots on a smaller scale, like SCARA (Selective Compliance Articulated Robot Arm), six axis and Cartesian robots. These are used in everything from electronics manufacture to the process industries, including plastics, metalworking and energy. Such machines provide incredible payload, accuracy and repeatability as well as simple programming and easy use.

As the need for higher levels of automation increases with natural human ambition – to produce ‘bigger, better and faster’ – robotic exoskeletons will undoubtedly be seen more widely in the manufacturing industry. If the capabilities for precision, seen in likes of SCARA, six axis and Cartesian robots, can be harmoniously married with the lifting potential of the Daewoo and Activelink exoskeletons, the plant of the future may look like a superhuman gym. O'RiordanMechmanufacturing,robots
  Author: Jonathan Wilkins, marketing manager, European Automation Wearable robotics has been around for a little while now. They can be seen in the medical, defence and aerospace sectors where they aid human movement and augment our potential. We are now starting to see them appear in the manufacturing sector as...