The exoskeleton industry has a very long way before it can reach its market potential. Current commercial exoskeleton devices tend to be slow, cumbersome, with the degree of usefulness still up for debate. For example, an exoskeleton can help a person lift an extremely heavy object, but now the user has to lug around a heavy metal robot that limits their movement, resulting in an overall increased rate of energy consumption. Exoskeleton technology is continuously improving and it will be only a matter of time and funding before wearable robots become more useful and reliable. There is one hurdle however, that every single developer of exoskeletons agrees must be overcome first: the cost must go down.
Powered lower extremities exoskeletons sell for $70,000 – $120,000 each. This figure is just the cost of the device, it does not include service and maintenance, parts, training, cost of supervision or sessions with physiotherapists trained to work with power suits. Everything combined, the cost of ownership of a powered hip-knee-ankle exoskeleton for people with disabilities comes to roughly $210,000 for 2 years. That is incredibly expensive, especially when you consider that this is an extra cost in addition to all standard medical expenses such as surgery and hospital stay. Furthermore, exoskeletons have ended up competing in some well-established markets: enabling exoskeletons vs powered wheelchairs, military exoskeletons vs humvees. The high cost of wearable robotics is making these head to head competitions a losing battle.
The high cost of exoskeletons has also caused the industry to get trapped into something of a Catch 22. More funding, especially private funding such as venture capital will greatly accelerate exoskeleton development. Investors, however, have great difficulty in seeing a quick return on their investment because large, powered exoskeletons simply don’t sell beyond 300 units per year. Exoskeleton companies can’t sell more units until they have more funding to refine their products, and so the cycle continues.
Just because the exoskeleton industry is off to a slow start, that does not mean that there isn’t a bright future ahead. There are currently at least 30 companies developing wearable robots (see: List of exoskeleton companies, businesses and startups). Below are the main strategies that companies are employing to reduce the cost of their wearables. Note that some businesses are experimenting with two routes at the same time.
Staying The Course
Companies: Ekso Bionics, ReWalk Robotics, CYBERDYNE, Hocoma, REX Bionics
One of the strategies for reducing the cost of exoskeleton devices is to stay the course. These companies are continuously upgrading and optimizing their products, conducting clinical trials, and expanding their sales and distribution network. Given more time, orders will increase which will greatly decrease manufacturing cost. Design refinements and agreements with insurers will also bring down the cost of ownership for current products.
Simplify the Design
Companies: US Bionics, Active Bionics, AXO Suits, ExoAtlet
Another path towards reducing exoskeleton costs is to take existing designs and remove anything that is non-essential. Does a consumer exoskeleton really need 40 sensors? What is the minimum quality of the motor controller that can be used? Does the motor need to have an encoder with 2000 unique locations or will 120 be sufficient? Some of these companies have exoskeletons that are even controlled by a push-button switch, which is not necessarily a bad thing if the cost of the device can be reduced by 80%.
Companies: Ekso Bionics, Lockheed Martin, Ski~Mojo, 20KTS+, Againer
Passive exoskeletons use the same logic as “design simplification,” but taken to the very extreme. Passive exoskeletons not only remove extra sensors but remove all electronic materials. Non-powered wearables have no sensors, motors or controllers and are purely mechanical devices. This reduces the cost of exoskeletons to the absolute minimum and it also makes the wearable devices easier to refine and redesign. For example, the Lockheed Martin FORTIS and Ekso Bionics WORKS passive exoskeletons that hold heavy equipment and tools trace their origin back to a heavier, fully powered design (the HULC).
Focus On a Single Task
Companies: Alter G, B-Temia, Innophys, Myomo, Noone, StrongArm Technologies
These companies have a different strategy for reducing the cost of exoskeletons: create very specialized devices. Specialized exoskeletons are engineered to perform only one task, they can be passive or powered and are always significantly smaller and lighter than any other exoskeleton. Some specialized wearable devices are used to reduce vibrations in the knees, power a single joint for rehabilitation or augmentation, or help with a single repetitive motion such as lifting heavy boxes in a warehouse. For example, the Marine Mojo passive exoskeleton by 20KTS+ is designed to be used on patrol boats to decrease the strain on the user’s knees, and nothing else.
Stay in Research
Companies: Honda, Daewoo, Panasonic, Parker Hannifin
The final strategy is to hold off on releasing a product to manufacturing and spending more time in research and development. This is a hard decision to make for any company, not introducing a product that is ready for production creates doubts of the project’s feasibility in upper management and also allows the competitors to take a foothold in the market. On the other hand, keeping a product in R&D makes a lot of sense for large companies that have the money to wait, have a reputation to maintain and are targeting a significantly larger market share.
Exoskeleton companies recognize that for the industry to move forward the price of wearable robotics must go down. Only time will tell which of these five strategies for reducing the cost of exoskeleton devices will be most successful.