For construction workers and other kinds of industrial employees, the body is one of the most important—and most vulnerable—tools you have. According to the 2016 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index, overexertion is the leading cause of injury among workers and costs employers more than $15 billion in compensation.
That's where the MAX, or the "modular agile exoskeleton," comes in. It's a series of three braces—called the backX, the legX, and the shoulderX—that use steel and aluminum supports to redistribute load from the user's muscles and joints, reducing injury and increasing comfort. The devices were engineered and designed by suitX, a government-, industry-, and VC-funded startup, in collaboration with UC Berkeley. Earlier this year, suitX released the PhoeniX exoskeleton, which helps those with mobile disability disorders to walk, and was an Innovation by Design finalist based on the device.
PhoeniX was groundbreaking, and MAX—which has been under development since 2011—is the startup's move to commercialize its technology for users in the workplace. According to Homayoon Kazerooni, the founder and CEO of suitX, each of the three modules takes less than a minute for an individual to put on, and only a few minutes to learn, since the only interface is an on-off button. They can be easily attached to each other in whatever combination the worker needs.
"These are not Ironman," he says. "These aren’t fancy devices."
That's precisely what Kazerooni was going for—a lightweight, simple solution to the daunting problem of overexertion for industrial workers. The exoskeletons were designed to stay out of the worker's way, augmenting their body without hindering it.
The three modular exoskeletal devices can be used individually or combined for full-body support. LegX uses a microcomputer in each leg to sense the angle of the worker's bent legs, stiffening when they're squatting to act almost like a chair, and then releasing when the worker is walking or climbing. BackX and shoulderX have no motors or computers; they're entirely mechanical. Their design instead supports back and shoulder muscles based on the angles of the user's body. When the worker lifts something without any support, the back muscles normally must become the counterweight and provide resistance. But the backX replaces some of that resistance, making things easier to lift. When the worker bends forward, components of backX that are filled with compressed air are engaged, taking some of the load off the worker's back, almost like shock absorbers in a car. ShoulderX uses a similar mechanism that is specifically meant to help support the shoulders when lifting or working above the head.
The backX can even help you lift more than you would be able to otherwise: During a demo at Google Ventures, one user tried on the brace and was able to lift a 50-pound box that had previously been too heavy.
Kazerooni says he spent may hours with workers in the U.S. and Japan, listening to their feedback and iterating on the exoskeletons' design in response, as well as testing the exoskeletons in the lab at UC Berkeley, where he is a professor of mechanical engineering. Studying the impact of the devices, he found that the backX reduced activity by 66% in four of the lower-back muscle groups.
Kazerooni expects that companies will want to invest in the technology in order to protect their workers and avoid medical costs due to injury. While prices vary depending on how many exoskeletons are ordered, the backX costs about $3,000, the shoulderX costs another $3,000, and the legX costs $5,000. He says that MAX has already been purchased for a number of factories and industrial workplaces like shipyards, construction sites, and warehouses, including by airplane manufacturer Boeing. MAX aims to be an ergonomic workplace device, for workers who spend their days squatting and lifting rather than sitting.