by Richard McPartland
Working on a construction site can easily take its toll on the human body. Tasks can be strenuous, repetitive, high-impact... and that affects productivity, as well as workers' wellbeing and longevity. But now technology could be set to lend a helping hand - literally.
An exoskeleton revolution is set to make Bob the bionic builder a reality as construction workers start packing the kind of kit that would more typically make for some pretty serious avenging. In some respects construction is a bit late to the party - body suits and add-on limbs are already supporting the military, helping those with spinal injuries walk again, and taking the strain for airport baggage handlers.
It's an industry that's set to become big business - the sector is expected to be worth $2.1billion by 2021, up from $36.5 million in 2015. Clear potential, then, for a company like Ekso Bionics. The firm, headquartered in Richmond, California, has an impressive track record for developing this kind of tech across a range of applications - including a bionic arm and upper body suit.
So, what can we expect?
The Ekso ZeroG
As the name might suggest the ZeroG is designed to make tools feel weightless. The device, a gravity-balancing arm, can hold industrial drills up to 16kg and is designed to take the strain that builders would traditionally have to endure when working with heavy, cumbersome, tools for prolonged periods.
The firm's promotional video shows real productivity gains, improved safety and the device's ability to negate the kind of wear and tear that workers traditionally endure.
The EksoVest is a spring-loaded exoskeleton for the upper body and also makes heavy items, lifted by builders, feel weightless by taking the strain that traditionally would hit the shoulders hard.
The power suit will allow workers to spend long days lifting materials and holding tools at awkward angles without the physical stresses usually associated with such tasks.
A full-body robotically-powered suit is also in the works with Ekso targeting a late 2019 launch. The kit would allow workers to lift significant weights as they freely move around site without the need for specialist vehicles.
Game-changer or tech too far?
What was once the stuff of science fiction, is now science fact, with Ekso Bionics eyeing a UK launch for its construction products in early 2018, and other firms also targeting what is clearly a growing market. The potential for construction is easy to see - with 30% of bricklayers aged 50 and over and 700,000 set to retire over the next decade, extending working lives by easing the strain, and improving productivity is a compelling proposition.
But ignore the robots at your peril - New York's Construction Robotics have developed SAM 100 (the Semi-Automated Mason) that can lay 3,000 bricks a day when most humans average 500.
One thing's for sure - your future co-workers are set to look very very different in the years ahead.
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