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Wearable robotics for factory workers: the ultimate PPE?

Movies and television have long played with the idea of robotics to enhance human performance.

The dystopian film "Elysium," for example, Matt Damon played a character who wears an exoskeleton to increase his strength and speed when trying to confront dark forces. The type of automated body armor on display was not merely the stuff of science fiction; it was based at least in part on a real exosuit developed for military purposes.

Given that such things are conceivable, could real-life robotics help protect factory workers from injury? In this post, we will explore that question.

Personal protective equipment

In dangerous industries, the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as helmets, gloves or goggles is of course absolutely critical.

To be sure, using PPE items doesn't eliminate the underlying hazard. But it reduces the risk of injury.

And so people who work in construction, manufacturing and other dangerous settings often use PPEs. A worker in a cannery may wear goggles; a construction worker may wear a hard hat; and so on.

Bionic protections

General Motors and a Swedish company called Bioservo Technologies are working to design a special glove that is supposed to allow workers to hold onto objects longer and with a stronger grip than would be possible unaided.

GM says it will bring a prototype of this bionic glove - called the RoboGlove - to the production floor next year. Wearable devices such as this are supposed to augment the physical capacity of humans so that humans can work more effectively with robots.

Wearable robotics are also supposed to make humans less likely to be injured on the job.

The glove is supposed to prevent muscle fatigue in the hand by using battery-powered movements to grip objects without subjecting someone's hand to undue strain.

Other companies are experimenting with wearable robotics as well. In Japan, in particular, exoskeletons are already in use by Panasonic at a manufacturing facility. Devices such as this have the potential to cut down on back injuries caused by repeated heavy lifting.

Looking to the future

The U.S. already has more than 237,000 industrial robots in place. But they work mostly in making motor vehicles and in the auto parts industry.

There are some good reasons why - despite so many movie scripts to the contrary - a robot takeover of the workplace is not on the horizon anytime soon. Industrial robots are prohibitively expensive and they lack physical dexterity.

It could well be, however, that wearable robotics will become more common, allowing humans and robots to work together more closely on the factory floor than ever before.

But technology has its limits and it is unlikely utopia will be arriving anytime soon. This means that workers injured in a factory setting will still need workers' comp.

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