If you’re like me, lifting your hands above your head for extended periods is an activity solely reserved for roller coasters, really good concerts, or imitating the flailing arm man outside of car dealerships. If you’re more like these assembly workers, building cars for a living, your hands are above your head for hours at a time. In fact, according to Ford, the average worker lifts their arms 4,600 times a day. Back, shoulder, and spine injuries are common, expensive, and can put assemblers out of work for days.
That’s where Ford’s EksoVest comes on.
I had the opportunity to try out Ford’s “body exoskeletal tech suit,” which instantly makes you look like a bounty hunter from the year 2380. At a unit cost of about $6,000 (£4,484), the suit is essentially a harness that wraps around your body like a backpack. When activated, the suit’s arms use a hydraulic system to relieve up to 15 pounds of pressure from your shoulders and spine when your arms are raised.
Though exoskeleton-technology has largely focused on accessibility (and overthrowing an oppressive space regime), there’s a small handful of exoskeletons geared to workers. Ekso debuted a few full body pieces in 2015, though the EksoVest stands apart for being much more lightweight. Strapping in takes about 60 seconds and the pressure is relieved without having to strap in your legs or ankles.
Marty Smets, an ergonomics and Human Systems Technical Expert with Ford, explained that shoulder strain is not only the most common injury among assembly line workers, but also the most expensive. According to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers in manufacturing plants have always suffered the majority nationwide of workplace injuries, usually from strains that accumulate over time rather than a single accident. Ford is piloting the vest in two US factories now, the Michigan Assembly Plant and the Flat Rock Assembly Plant (also in Michigan). Smets says Ford plans to expand the pilot series after getting more feedback from workers, particularly paying attention to how the suit affects their balance.
Wearing the suit, I not only felt balanced, I felt ready to lift a car off of a frightened toddler. Or at the least, help build a fleet of cars. (There were no cars or toddlers in the Gizmodo offices.)