Researchers at the Canadian Institute for Safety, Wellness and Performance (CISWP) at Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ont. will be digging a little deeper into the possible benefits of using exoskeletons in the construction industry.
Hilti Canada, which manufactures products and provides technology to make the construction industry safer, has contributed 15 exoskeletons to the college so more applied research can be conducted on the technology.
Exoskeletons are wearable structures that support and assist movement or augment the capabilities of the human body. Workers wear the suits or devices while doing strenuous tasks in order to avoid injury. The technology aims to provide better joint support, weight distribution and posture correction.
Researchers will be testing the exoskeletons at various construction worksites to find out if they do, in fact, have an impact in reducing the physical demands on workers and preventing workplaces injuries. Analysis of the data will also help them figure out if improvements could be made by manufacturers to the next generation of exoskeletons.
“We’ll be trying to collect data in the field while these construction workers perform their actual day-to-day tasks,” explains Dr. Amin Yazdani, director of the CIWSP. “There is not enough body of evidence around that field to really generate that evidence to really support the next generation of exoskeletons.”
While exoskeletons are being deployed in a greater variety of roles, they have not proven their worth to the degree that other robotic technologies like collaborative robots and autonomous navigation systems have, as they have limited power range and movement.
According to ABI Research, the exoskeleton market is expected to grow to US$6.8 billion in global revenue in 2030 from $392 million in 2020.
Researchers will be looking at the amount of force that is applied while workers are working on tasks and whether the exoskeletons helped them be more efficient. They will also be measuring the level of fatigue by collecting data over a period of days from workers who are wearing and not wearing exoskeletons.
The idea, says Yazdani, is to quantify whether the exoskeletons do alleviate the physical demands of a task.
There are two types of exoskeletons — active and passive. Active exoskeletons use electrical power to augment the use of force while passive units rely on elements such as springs and dampers to store energy generated by an individual and release it to support the motion of a specific joint. The exoskeletons donated by Hilti are classed as passive and are attached to the body via straps and a belt.
“They have these external mechanical structures that enhances the power of a person,” says Yazdani. “They are very simple to put on. They’re like backpacks and they are very useful if you have static postures or you’re doing overhead drilling for a long period of time or, for instance, you’re a drywall finisher or electrician. For any overhead task, I think those exoskeletons will be useful.”
The exoskeletons are designed to support a body part — often the arms — and help transfer energy to the task at hand.
“This is particularly important because there’s a lot of shoulder injuries in construction and this could potentially help,” Yazdani says. “We have evidence that suggests they reduce the muscle activities on some of the targeted muscles but they could potentially reduce workplace injuries.”
As part of the project, researchers will also investigate whether the designs of the exoskeletons could be tweaked, for example, to better accommodate female tradesworkers or a more diverse workforce.
The CISWP, which was established in 2019, will be partnering with construction companies whose workers will use the exoskeletons, so researchers can get feedback. The exoskeletons will be equipped with sensors to quantify muscle activities while they work.
“We’re taking a lab-to-field approach,” notes Yazdani. “So our approach is, ‘Well, let’s go to the field and get this kind of tested and tried by actual workers while they’re performing the task.’”
Yazdani uses a multidisciplinary strategy to develop innovative approaches to prevent workplace injuries and work disability. His research interest centres around standardization of human factor and ergonomics in the design of products and work environments by developing best practices and technical standards.
The new partnership with Hilti will help with two of the CIWSP’s research projects.
One project, called Improving Worker Health and Performance in Construction: Implementation and Adoption of Advanced Technologies, aims to address the anticipated shortage of skilled trades workers by developing tools that will help organizations with the adoption and adherence of exoskeletons. It is a three-year project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s college and community social innovation fund.
Another project is the Skilled Trade Research Innovation and Education in Occupational Safety and Health initiative that is geared to building capacity among current and future skilled tradesworkers and ensuring skilled trades businesses are prepared to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse workforce. It is also a three-year project, funded with close to $800,000 from the Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development.