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Wearable robotics shows promise for heavy manufacturing

Posted: 15 Dec 2014     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering  Daewoo  wearable robotics  robotic exoskeleton 

In fact, in a study of these firms' facilities in 2012, US Navy personnel found that five out of the six yards used robots in some capacity. The sophisticated levels of automation even meant that at one shipyard, robots did 68 per cent of all welding. They also carried out a variety of other jobs, from cutting and grinding steel, to polishing freshly assembled hulls, with minimal human oversight.

The need for such levels of automation is the result of building todays astounding vessels. Daewoo has a $1.9 billion contract from shipping giant Maersk Group to build record breaking 55,000-tonne container ships. Each vessel, 400 metres in length, has space for a staggering 18,000 containers. These ships will be the largest of their kind ever built.

However, robotic exoskeletons aren't unique to the shipbuilding industry, they could soon be coming to a shelf near you.

Activelink, a subsidiary of Panasonic, has gone one step further and actually named their robotic exoskeleton Power Loader. They plan to mass-produce and sell their robotic suit and the first batch of 1000 could be available as soon as 2015.

For anyone that's interested, the suit will retail for slightly under $5000 and has similar capabilities to that of the Daewoo prototype. Activelink's wearable robotics let the controller lift up to 30kg and move at speeds of up to 8kph. Again, the company believes that the payload can be increased to about 100kg.

The included lobster-like pincers don't possess the necessary hydraulics to make them anywhere near as powerful as a fire fighter's jaws-of-life. However, they will come in handy for jobs that require the wearer to maintain a certain level of abstraction from their work, for example working with munitions or radioactive materials.

Industry need to yield advanced robotic exoskeletons

At the moment, robotic exoskeletons in the manufacturing industry are still at their primary phase. Testers of the Daewoo shipbuilding model reported that they had difficulty negotiating slippery or sloping surfaces and the prototypes cannot yet cope with twisting motions. Not to mention there are some obvious health and safety issues to do with working near water in a suit that weighs 28kg.

As the industry grows, so too will the need for automation and innovation and I don't think it will be long before we start seeing more than initial prototypes in this sector.

As the need for higher levels of automation increases with natural human ambition, to produce bigger, better and faster, robotic exoskeletons will undoubtedly be seen more widely in the manufacturing industry. If the capabilities for precision, seen in likes of SCARA (Selective Compliance Articulated Robot Arm), six axis and Cartesian robots, can be harmoniously married with the lifting potential of the Daewoo and Activelink exoskeletons, the plant of the future may look like a superhuman gym.

- Jonathan Wilkins
  EE Times Europe

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