By Christine Kern, contributing writer
Exosuit is designed to help employees lift and carry merchandise more safely and efficiently.
Lowe’s and Virginia Tech have developed a new wearable robotic suit with lift-assist technology that helps employees lift and carry merchandise through the store more efficiently and with less change of repetitive injuries. The exosuit is now being piloted at Lowe’s Christiansburg, Virginia store, and it was a product of Lowe’s Innovation Lab.
“Our employees ensure our stores are always ready for customers,” said Kyle Nel, executive director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs, the company’s disruptive technology hub. “As a way to support them, we found a unique opportunity to collaborate with Virginia Tech to develop one of the first retail applications for assistive robotic exosuits.”
As the Lowe’s Innovation Labs website explains, the exosuits are soft robotic wear, “designed with carbon fiber rods on the back and legs, which assist with the lift mechanism, and lightweight, conformable fabrics ensure fluid natural movements.” The technology is similar to a bow and arrow in that the suit stores and releases energy as the employee bends and lifts, thus reducing the amount of energy necessary to lift objects.
The non-motorized suits are worn like a harness, with the carbon fiber rods serving as artificial tendons, according to The Verge. Kyle Nel, director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs, told The Verge, “It feels very natural. When the person is walking and bends down to pick something up, the rods collect potential energy. And when they stand back up it puts that energy back into their legs and back. It’s very smooth, and it feels like this heavy thing [they’re lifting] is much less heavy.”
Early feedback from the pilot has been positive. Lowe’s is using four of the custom-built suits in its Christiansburg, Virginia store, and the pilot is now over a month old.
“[Employees] wear it all day, it’s very comfortable, and it makes their job easier,” says Nel, adding that Lowe’s is working with scientists from Virginia Tech to conduct a proper analysis to assess the technology. “It’s early days, but we’re doing some major studies,” he says.
Dr. Alan Asbeck, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Virginia Tech headed the development project. He explained, “Over the past couple years, human assistive devices have become an area of interest. But, our technology is different, not only because of the suit’s soft, flexible elements, but because we’re putting the prototype in a real world environment for an extended period of time.”
“Lowe’s is committed to exploring opportunities that improve the workplace experience,” said Nel. “As a way to support our employees, we found a unique opportunity to collaborate with Virginia Tech to develop one of the first retail applications for robotic exosuits.”