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Lowe's and Virginia Tech Make ‘Iron Man’ Suit for Employees

With one of the few exception that it doesn’t fly, the new lightweight exosuit aims to enhance performance, reduce injury and improve safety

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Lowe's and Virginia Tech Make ‘Iron Man’ Suit for Employees
Lowe's and Virginia Tech Make ‘Iron Man’ Suit for Employees

In fact Lowe’s Innovation Labs in Bengaluru is looking for disruptive startups who have amazing ideas like these as part of their collider program. Lowe's and Virginia Tech have joined forces to develop an exosuit—a wearable robotic suit with lift-assist technology, for Lowe's store employees. Currently in pilot at Lowe's Christiansburg, Virginia, store, the lightweight exosuit is designed to support employees by helping them lift and move product through the store more efficiently, to aid against muscle fatigue that can result from repetitive motion.

The prestigious research university, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of 513 million dollars while Lowe's Companies is a Fortune 50 home improvement company serving more than 17 million customers a week in the United States, Canada and Mexico, with fiscal year 2016 sales grossing 65 billion dollars.

"Our employees ensure our stores are always ready for customers," said Kyle Nel, executive director of Lowe's Innovation Labs, the company's disruptive technology hub. "As a way to support them, we found a unique opportunity to collaborate with Virginia Tech to develop one of the first retail applications for assistive robotic exosuits."

As part of Lowe's Innovation Lab's narrative-driven approach, the team works with science fiction writers to envision the future, using storytelling as inspiration for innovative initiatives. The Lab envisioned a future where the use of technology could provide special superpowers to employees and maximize performance. To bring this narrative to life, Lowe's engaged Dr. Alan Asbeck, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and a team of eight graduate and undergraduate students from Virginia Tech's Assistive Robotics Laboratory.

Together, Lowe's and Virginia Tech designed and developed an exosuit prototype after months of lab testing. The outcome was a light-weight wearable exosuit that reinforces proper lifting form, and is intended to make lifting heavy objects easier. The exosuit is designed to accomplish this by absorbing energy and delivering it back to the user, enabling them to exert less force to complete certain movements. As they bend and stand, carbon fiber in the suit's legs and back act like a taut bow ready to launch an arrow, helping them spring back up with greater ease. As a result, commonly lifted objects, like a bag of concrete or a five-gallon bucket of paint, feels significantly lighter to the user.

"Over the past couple years, human assistive devices have become an area of interest," Asbeck said. "But, our technology is different, not only because of the suit's soft, flexible elements, but because we're putting the prototype in a real-world environment for an extended period of time."

The first four suits are currently in use by the stocking team at the Christiansburg store. During the coming months, Asbeck and his team will work with Lowe's to assess the physical impact of the suit. Lowe's will also lead employee engagement studies to better understand the impact of the exosuit on the work experience.


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Virginia Tech robot suit iron man

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