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Technology

To bionic suits, logistics workers say thanks but no thanks

TOKYO -- Robotic exoskeletons are catching on in industries that require humans to do a lot of heavy lifting. But when it comes to the transport business, the suits may not be ready for prime time, a recent report suggests.

The contraptions use pneumatic and other systems to supplement the body's strength. Yet, in a survey, some employees of Japanese logistics company Nippon Express said the suits actually increased fatigue rather than alleviating it.

The survey was conducted by Nittsu Research Institute and Consulting, a Nippon Express unit. It spoke to workers at the parent company who handle loads at distribution depots, as well as those in the moving business.

The subjects were asked to try three kinds of commercially available powered exoskeletons. Afterward, 60-70% complained of heightened fatigue in the back and shoulders, according to the report.

Assistance or hindrance?

Exoskeletons are spreading in the elderly care business. Caregivers frequently have to lift patients and tend to complain of back pain.

Facing a serious shortage of labor, Japanese logistics companies are keen to adopt the technology, too. Reducing the physical burden could allow them to hire more women and seniors.

The report, however, theorizes that transport workers often lift loads above chest level or sideways. The power assistance of the bionic suits, however, kicks in mainly when lifting objects at levels below the waist. Thus, the devices in the study failed to offer support when it mattered most.

Workers also said they found wearing the 3kg to 7kg machinery a nuisance. Some said taking the exoskeletons on and off was a pain at busy times.

The suits cost hundreds of thousands of yen, or several thousand dollars, apiece. For them to make economic sense, companies would need to secure discounts by buying in bulk. But no company wants to spend big on contraptions its employees would rather not wear.

The report calls on exoskeleton developers to improve their products, based on feedback from workers who have tried them on the job.

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