A home improvement chain is taking a page from science fiction to keep employees safe.
Lowe's and Virginia Tech have joined forces to develop an exosuit — a wearable robotic suit with lift-assist technology — for Lowe's store employees. The lightweight exosuit, which is designed to help employees lift and move product throughout the store more efficiently, and aids against muscle fatigue, is being piloted in Lowe's Christiansburg, Virginia, store.
If the new suit sounds like something found in a science fiction novel, there’s a reason. The idea evolved in the company's disruptive technology hub, Lowe's Innovation Lab. One concept within the hub’s narrative-driven approach is the ability for the design team to work with science fiction writers to envision the future, and use storytelling as inspiration for innovative initiatives. The Lab envisioned a future where the use of technology could provide special “superpowers” to employees and maximize performance.
To bring this narrative to life, Lowe's engaged Dr. Alan Asbeck, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and a team of eight graduate and undergraduate students from Virginia Tech’s Assistive Robotics Laboratory. Together, Lowe's and Virginia Tech designed and developed an exosuit prototype after months of lab testing.
"Our employees ensure our stores are always ready for customers," said Kyle Nel, executive director of Lowe's Innovation Labs. "As a way to support them, we found a unique opportunity to collaborate with Virginia Tech to develop one of the first retail applications for assistive robotic exosuits."
The key elements of the lightweight suit include the reinforcement of proper lifting form, and support for movements intended to make lifting heavy objects easier. The exosuit is designed to accomplish this by absorbing energy and delivering it back to the user, enabling them to exert less force to complete certain movements.
As they bend and stand, carbon fiber in the suit's legs and back act like a taut bow ready to launch an arrow, helping them spring back up with greater ease. As a result, commonly lifted objects, like a bag of concrete or a five-gallon bucket of paint, feels significantly lighter to the user, according to the chain.
The first four suits are currently in use by the stocking team at the Christiansburg store. During the coming months, Asbeck and his team will work with Lowe's to assess the physical impact of the suit. Lowe's will also lead employee engagement studies to better understand the impact of the exosuit on the work experience.