Exosuit helps retail staff with the heavy lifting

As the wearer bends and stands back up the legs store the user's energy from bending forward and then returns that energy when the user stands back up.

Engineers from Virginia Tech have worked with US-based home improvement retailer Lowe's to develop an exosuit designed to help employees at the stores lift and move product more efficiently.

Robotics expert Alan Asbeck, an assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Department of Engineering, speicalises in building wearable technology, and he worked with Lowe's InnovationLabs to design a prototype of an exosuit that store staff could wear to make it easier to lift products.

"Over the past couple of years, human assistive devices have become an area of interest," Asbeck said. "Our technology is different in that it includes soft and flexible elements, and our approach is unique in that we are putting our prototypes in a real-world environment for an extended period of time."

Working at the home improvement retailer requires employees to frequently lift and move heavy or bulky products. This leads to fatigue and tiredness. The soft, lightweight exosuit works due to its carbon fibre legs. As the wearer bends and stands back up, the legs store the user's energy from bending forward, then returns that energy when the user stands back up.

Taylor Pesek, a master’s candidate majoring in mechanical engineering, and Emily Beauchamp, a master’s candidate majoring in engineering mechanics, are working on the project. During development of the suit, Pesek focused on mechanics while Beauchamp focused on the ergonomics and soft elements.

"Projects such as the Lowe's exosuit really provide an opportunity for engineers who sit behind desks most of the time to really reach out and help other people," Pesek said.

"My background was in robotics, where the technology was incredible, but still years away from showing up in everyday life. The exciting thing about this exosuit is that it will already be directly assisting people as it’s being developed."

The first four suits are being trialed at a store, and in the coming months, the engineers will work with Lowe's to assess the physical impact of the suits, and see if they have indeed made an impact on the working experience.

Lowe’s will survey the impact of the program and look for opportunities to scale up. In the lab, the team will continue to developing the technology and eventually will look for additional applications.

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