The worker in the robot suit: New industrial orders reignite exoskeleton interest

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Robotic exoskeletons are back in the news after Ford ordered 75 robotic suits from Ekso Bionics, as reported by my colleague.

The relatively small number of orders belies the significance of this moment for a fantastically advanced set of technologies that have been searching for a viable market for over a decade now. Wearable robots that augment human strength have attracted big investment money, but the use case has been harder to pinpoint.

The Ford deal follows successful trials of Ekso’s EksoVest, one of the company’s newer enterprise offerings targeting manufacturing and industries that require workers to lift heavy loads, such as large tools. The pitch is reduced strain on employees resulting in fewer injuries.

Ford’s interest reflects a persistent reality in many manufacturing sectors: Automation is changing things, but humans are still central to the process.

Ekso was the first viable exoskeleton company to market, so it serves as a good bellwether for the sector at large.

Springing out of a UC Berkeley grad lab in 2005, Ekso began with ambitions of becoming a mobility company. Co-founders Russ Angold and Nathan Harding gave inspired pitches and predicted that the mobility-impaired would soon be walking down the narrow aisles of airplanes wearing one of Ekso’s suits under their clothes.

It was a laudable goal, but the vision took a back seat to market realities. Reliable, ubiquitous, and cheap enough to spread globally, wheelchairs proved a hard technology to unseat. At the time, the cost of an Ekso Bionics exoskeleton was over $100,000.

The company next took aim at the clinical rehab market, where it found limited success. Patients recovering from spinal cord injury and stroke use Ekso’s devices in rehab clinics for gait training and other physical therapies.

But rehab is a difficult sector for a startup to crack. Physical therapists have to be trained to use Ekso’s machines, restraining scalability. There are also issues with insurance covering the treatments.

Ekso has had to invest heavily in operations to support its rehab play, adding significantly to its overhead.

At the same time, competition has grown. Though the underlying controls and actuation strategies differ significantly on a technological level, newer entrants like suitX, ReWalk, HAL, and Wandercraft have introduced robotic exoskeletons that do essentially the same things Ekso’s suits do.

Over the last couple years, Ekso has seen significant operating losses (over $20M last year). Management has had to dilute investors’ stakes.

The Ford deal represents a way out of the woods for Ekso and other companies in the space. ABI Research predicts the worldwide commercial market for industrial exoskeletons will exceed 2.6 million units.

Competition is growing, but so is the opportunity. Industries like construction and ship building, which haven’t seen a productivity boost in decades, are particularly ripe for the technology.

Powered exoskeletons in the field include Activelink’s Powerloader Ninja, RB3D’s HERCULE, Sarcos Robotics’ Guardian XO. The EksoVest shares many of the same engineering DNA as its powered brethren, but it’s unpowered and passive, which makes it affordable and lightweight.

The lure of increased productivity and fewer worker injuries is strong for industrial customers. Companies like Boeing and GE have already climbed onboard.

Which suggests that the future of work may be robotic, but for now, at least, there’s still room for a human in the loop.

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