What are Exoskeletons?

Exoskeletons are wearable structures designed to enhance human capabilities by providing support and assistance in movements, potentially even augmenting physical abilities.

These can be divided into different groups such as Active Exoskeletons and Passive Exoskeletons. However, the definitions of these terms and the type of exoskeletons that fall into each category vary, with no definitive answer to this matter.

At iDR, we consider the division of these groups and their respective definitions as described below.

Active or Motorized Exoskeletons

Active Exoskeletons are typically motorized structures, powered by batteries or cells that can use an electric, pneumatic, hydraulic, or any other type of actuator. They can be classified as Active Assistive Exoskeletons or Enhancement Exoskeletons.

We often see Active Assistive Exoskeletons in the healthcare sector, such as in patient rehabilitation and physiotherapy. The purpose of these devices is to alleviate the physical burden of a specific task, reducing the percentage of force the user typically needs to perform it. This enables the user, for example, to walk.

Enhancement Exoskeletons are the ones that often conjure images of a “Transformer.” Their function is geared towards improving the user’s physical endurance and increasing strength. They enable users to walk for extended periods and lift heavy loads, tasks that would be challenging without the assistance of this equipment.

Active Exoskeletons can be fully autonomous or controlled through a connection to a computer and actuation systems (electric, pneumatic, hydraulic, or other).

Passive Exoskeletons

Passive Exoskeletons provide mechanical support for demanding, repetitive, or prolonged tasks, distributing weight across the body, assisting in movements, correcting posture, and improving precision without granting the user superhuman strength. The main difference from Active Exoskeletons is that Passive Exoskeletons do not use any motors, cells, or batteries, relying solely on mechanical support, such as a spring system that stores energy.

What are the advantages of using exoskeletons?

For the user/worker:

  • Improve ergonomic and postural issues
  • Prevent MSDs – musculoskeletal disorders
  • Reduce fatigue and the risk of injuries

For companies:

  • Aid in preventing absences
  • Increase productivity and precision
  • Offer better working conditions/create new job opportunities

For companies, is it profitable to invest in exoskeletons?

At the current date in Portugal (2023), a worker earning the minimum wage costs an average of €1010 per month to their employer (calculated based on the Base Salary + Social Security + Work Accident Insurance + Meal Allowance). In this way, and considering the difficulty in hiring new workers, when a company experiences cases of sick leave, it finds itself in a delicate situation.

In this situation, besides the production and/or response time being slower, which in most cases means less money coming into the entities, there is a need to search for new workers and train them. Finding new professionals is extremely difficult and also extremely expensive, forcing companies to pay a new salary (an average of €1010 monthly), mobilizing workers from their usual tasks to search, hire, and train the new acquisitions, which translates into a time and resource expense applied to a potentially good addition to the team.

After this analysis, would it then be more advantageous for companies to invest in the health and well-being of their workers or continue contributing to being constantly in unfavorable situations?