The vest that Paul Collins has been wearing at Ford is made by Ekso Bionics, a Richmond, California-based company. It’s an electronic-free contraption, and the soft part that hugs his chest looks like the front of a backpack. But the back of it has a metal rod for a spine, and a small, curved pillow rests behind his neck. Extending from the spine are spring-loaded arm mechanics, ones that help Collins lift his arms to install carbon cans on Ford C-Max cars, and rubber grommets on Ford Focuses — about 70 cars an hour.
since 2011, Ford has been working, in some capacity, on wearable robotics solutions. But rather than trying to develop something that would give workers superhuman strength, the idea is to prevent injury. “In 2016, our injury statistics were the lowest we’ve seen on record. We’ve had an 83 percent decrease in some of these metrics over the past five years, which is all great,” Smets said. “But if you look at the body parts that are still getting injured, it’s predominantly the shoulder. That’s our number one joint for injury. It’s also the longest to return to full functionality, and the most costly.”
The Ekso vest I tried costs around $6,500 and weighs nine pounds. Smets handed me a power tool, flipped a physical switch on the arm of the vest, and told me to raise my arms over my head as though I was on an assembly line. At some point during my movement, the exosuit kicked into action, its spring mechanism lifting my arms the rest of the way. I could leave my arms in place above my head, too, fully supported. My fingers started to tingle after awhile in that position.
Watch the video.