In 2020, science fiction is looking more like fact, with exoskeleton suits growing in popularity and practicality within the construction industry.
While building and construction experts can't expect to be moving around a job site in a power loader like Ripley from Aliens, the wearable technology has been gaining momentum in the sector as prototypes make their way onto the market. These devices – some fully mechanical, others driven by electricity – feature motorised joints that lessen the burden on workers as they carry out tasks as diverse as lifting heavy loads or overhead wiring work.
It's understandable why employers and employees alike would be interested in using exoskeleton technology: not only does it provide productivity boosts by lowering fatigue or amplifying the user's strength, but it also has the potential to cut down on work-related injuries in the short and long term by supporting posture and reducing strain.
Another crucial benefit is the ability to cut down on staff turnover, a consideration German medical technology company Ottobock has highlighted as it launches the wearable tech body suit, Paexo Shoulder, in Australia.
The exoskeleton was first launched in Europe 18 months ago, with 500 plants and factories putting it to use before it gained traction in construction. German RV manufacturer Thor Industries was one of the first companies to use the device. The organisation has a reputation for prioritising low staff turnover by promoting the best health and safety practices.
"Our employees were delighted by the way the exoskeleton immediately relieved strain on their muscles, for example, during overhead welding or electrical installations under ceilings," says Thor CEO Kersten Thor.
He believes the technology makes manual labour more appealing, with potential and established workers both recognising that their well-being and ability to forge a life-long career are secure.
Supporters of exoskeleton technology expect it to become increasingly common in the coming decade. Though both the pros and cons of exoskeleton use are still being understood, its ability to reduce the risk of work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) is ensuring companies are quick to jump onboard. The leading work health and safety problem, MSDs reportedly affect 6.9 million people and cost the Australian economy more than $24 billion per year.