Boeing’s engineers live and breathe innovation. It’s a passion that’s evident not just in their cutting-edge airplanes, but across the workplace, where new technologies are transforming manufacturing operations.
Dr Christopher Reid is an Associate Technical Fellow with Boeing, specializing in ergonomics and wearable technology. Over the past six years he’s been working to assess and roll out exoskeleton technology to make work safer, healthier and more efficient for workers producing and servicing Boeing’s aircraft.
The first challenge for Reid and his team has been to work out where to focus their efforts. It’s not always easy to say who is most at risk of injury, as Reid explains:
“In the production environment, most injuries result from cumulative trauma – repetitive stress that accumulates over time. They’re highly severe when they happen, but they’re hard to predict because everybody takes on injuries differently.”
Despite the unpredictable nature of stress injuries, Boeing’s ergonomists have developed risk assessments which allow them to say with a high degree of confidence where these injuries will occur. As a result, they’re able to target high-risk locations where workers will get most benefit from exoskeletons, and pre-empt injuries before they happen.
“If someone is doing overhead work for two hours a day, that’s a leading indicator that they will benefit from a shoulder exoskeleton. Over time, using our lessons learnt, we’ve essentially been able to turn it into a math problem. So you don’t need a highly-qualified specialist to run the risk-assessment. A novice can run through the checklist and match up the job to the exoskeleton.”
With more than 140,000 employees working in multiple locations across the US alone, this structured approach to assessments has been key to effective deployment of exo technology at Boeing. The company has doubled the number of exoskeletons in use over the past two years, as the technology has started to prove its worth. In addition to reducing the negative impact on workers’ health of repetitive strain injuries, exoskeletons are an effective cost avoidance strategy, as Reid explains:
“We’re seeing the return on investment against just the direct costs of compensation and time off for workers with stress injuries. Beyond that, you have the indirect costs of replacing an injured employee, training someone else to do their job, and the time it takes for them to become expert, during which your production line is slowed down. So the total cost of an injury is much, much higher.”
Adding up these benefits has led Boeing’s C-suite to make significant investments in the technology. Reid and his colleagues are investigating exoskeletons for other body parts, including lower back and full body devices. As with the shoulder exoskeletons, these will go through a process of qualification and testing before they are deployed across the business. As the technologies are so new, this process can require significant time, and investment, says Reid:
“We spend a lot of energy up front doing these qualifications, laboratory studies in universities, hiring specialists, and working with specialists from academic settings, or internal to Boeing.”
Fortunately, Boeing has been able to share the burden of investigating these technologies through working with ASTM International. Reid is Chair of ASTM’s F48.02 Committee on Human Factors and Ergonomics and sits on the ASTM board of directors. He likens the approach to a research consortium, which is adding ‘strength to strength’:
“We’re getting data through this network saying, ‘Hey, we’ve used this for six months, we’ve trialed it for a year, here’s the feedback that we’ve learned, here’s some lab studies that we that we funded’. It’s allowed us to share across borders, and accelerate our evaluations.”
As one of the pioneers in adopting exo technologies, Reid believes many of the factors which are slowing adoption lie not with the technology, but with the market:
“I’d like to see the market grow, so that we can bring down the individual cost of these devices, and allow them to be more pervasive. But to get there, you need a stable supply chain, you have to build market trust for investors, you have to look at ways to involve regulators, look at workers compensation insurance.”
For Reid, the ASTM Exo Technology Center of Excellence (CoE) is an effective link between these high-level needs and grassroots deployment of the technology. By bringing together customers, suppliers, regulators and academics, the Center is able to make connections that can speed innovation and further commercialization.
Through its ‘research to standards’ approach, the CoE is mapping gaps in exo technology standards – from specifications to test methods and training – and funding research projects to fill them. One such project is around use of exoskeletons for injured employees returning to work. Reid and others posit that it might be possible to use an exoskeleton device to protect workers during the recovery phase without exacerbating the injury. If proved to be feasible, and supported with standards, many companies would stand to benefit from being able to use exoskeletons in return-to-work situations, further reducing the cost burden of work injuries.
Looking ahead, what excites Reid are the opportunities being created through the convergence of new technologies, from artificial intelligence and robotics to new battery and computing capability.
“What we’re seeing is technology becoming smaller and more adaptable in different circumstances. In exo technology, on the softer material or exosuit side, you’re seeing that capability become smart clothing. And on the harder exoskeleton side, you’re seeing devices that are able to take on larger payloads that would traditionally put a person at risk.”
At Boeing, those could be deployed respectively in a uniform that could reduce the risk to workers from fatigue, or to carry out work that involves larger payloads where there isn’t room to use overhead gantries or cranes. Reid is betting on both sides:
“I’m always look at it from the perspective of ‘how can I capture the future that’s near-term and bring that in to help the company?’”
It’s an outlook that promises to continue Boeing’s long tradition of innovation, and to see many beyond the company benefit from the exo technology advances ASTM’s pioneering work is supporting.