The vast majority of exoskeleton companies are losing money leaving many investors to wonder when are we going to reach the inflection point? The exoskeleton industry inflection point is the time when the major companies in the field start turning a profit. Another side of the same question is the low number of exoskeleton sales. If the exoskeleton industry is maturing and companies are generating quality products better than anything seen before, shouldn’t we be seeing a significant increase in orders?
Over the last few weeks there have been several articles and forum posts asking where are all of the sales orders and contracts for exoskeletons? Some authors express worry that it is taking companies too long and they will have to dilute their shares to stay afloat. Others are criticizing many of the companies for lacking a large sales team. And some authors’ writing down right borders on hysteria and are calling entire companies a sham.
I would like to use this opportunity to share my observations on what is delaying exoskeleton orders. My observations are based on and apply to all subfields of the exoskeleton industry: industrial, medical, military and commercial. I try to be as objective as possible. I am not currently employed or payed by any wearables company nor do I hold any stock.
Looking at a simplified company model: an idea is refined into a product and then the product is sold to customers. If the product is good, customers will flock to it and buy it up. If the product is not good, then sales will be low and the company making it will disappear. The low sales volumes for all types of exoskeletons throughout the world has started making investors jittery that this is exactly what they are looking at: a bad product concept that no company can sell for a profit. In other words, everyone is wasting their time and money. I strongly believe that this is not the case.
From my observations over the past year and a half, it appears that the engineering behind most exoskeleton products is sound, and the majority of the product refinement is complete. The problem now lies in building a bridge between the various exoskeleton products and customers. There are potential buyers that have needs that can be met with existing exo products and it is a matter of connecting the dots. When that happens, sales will skyrocket. The exoskeleton industry inflection point maybe closer than it appears; most likely within a year to three years from now.
The simplified idea —> product —> customer model plays out like a computer game. Right now I have installed Shop Heroes, a game where the player runs a medieval fantasy store that specializes in swords and armor. But let’s assume no in game character has ever seen a firearm but the shop starts selling muskets. How would they be marketed? Which in game character should create procedures (storage, amount of powder to be used, guidelines for shot size, cleaning, etc). Who should use them? How long would it take to train people? What about safety? If a gun malfunctions who is to be held accountable… Adopting new technology takes significant time. Throughout history we have seen this. Be it firearms, reading glasses, cars or even handheld cell phones, it takes time for a new technology to proliferate.
We now have the exoskeleton technology and it is time to connect it to the customer. If we zoom in on the link between product and customer we can see the bridge that is starting to form and what is still missing:
- if one part of the body gets boosted is it at the expense of another?
- 3rd party testing
- insurance willing to cover units or accidents
- proof of device ruggedness
- claim validation
- refining which exos should be applied for what tasks and which people
- reviews and testimonials
- vendors and suppliers
- setting expectations
- trade organizations
Realistically each bullet point deserves its own article but lets keep this short.
First, safety: This has been a problem for the exoskeleton industry because most people imagine Iron Man or the Power Loader from Aliens when they first hear exoskeletons. People associate exos with big, extremely powerful machines. To put this in perspective, the Atlas autonomous robot by Boston Dynamics is so powerful that it is known to rip its own limbs off if it completes a movement too quickly. Imagine strapping a person in that! Fortunately, all exoskeleton developers have been extremely careful and so far there hasn’t been a single major injury in an exoskeleton reported. It will still require more time and publications that show exoskeletons are safe to use. The first such publication emerged just a few weeks ago: Meta Analysis Review on Rehabilitation Exoskeletons.
Second, the risk of just transferring load from one place to another: this is an issue that has recently been raised by US government agencies. If an exoskeleton, let’s say a hip exoskeleton for work & industry, relieves forces in the back and hips could it end up overloading the knees? Imagine a worst-case scenario. A large company with multiple warehouses rolls out exoskeletons for its warehouse workers. Over the next 10 years the number of back injuries plummet and the company realizes major cost saving from sick time, medical and legal fees. Turns out however, that the company chose an exoskeleton that overloads the knees and now there are thousands of employees ready to sue the company! In this hypothetical worst-case scenario it is easy to see why a company would like to wait to have more information on exoskeletons before placing any sizable orders (or do its own in-house study first). For more on this and very similar concerns refer to the article by the NIOSH Science Blog: Wearable Exoskeletons to Reduce Physical Load at Work.
Third and fourth is the importance of standardized third party testing. This should be self evident as test results will not be taken seriously if they are all done by the manufacturer. For more see Business Importance Of Exoskeleton Independent Testing.
Fifth, the insurance companies have to come on board. Insurance companies have to be convinced that it is in their interest to cover the cost of rehabilitation using medical exoskeletons, augmentative exoskeletons for home use and cover accidents while a person was using an exoskeleton. Once there is more data on the safety and usefulness of exoskeletons this will become easier and easier. Again the exoskeleton companies are doing the correct thing here.
Businesses such as Ekso Bionics, ReWalk Robotics, Lockheed Martin, Gogoa, Suit X and many other responsible companies are only working on a pilot scale with exoskeletons for evaluation. They could flood the market with product that few know how to properly use, make a profit and then fold when the lawsuits start coming in. The smart thing to do is to play the long game. Get more procedures and testing done first. Bring the insurance companies on board and then start fulfilling large orders.
Sixth is device ruggedness. The larger exoskeleton companies will need to sacrifice units that are put through rigorous testing until the unit fails. The testing method will have to be reproducible in different facilities. This will most likely start differentiating the players that will be here to stay vs smaller companies that will get bought out or fade away. To be more precise, the larger exoskeleton companies will not have any problem with this while some of the smaller startups such as AxoSuits will need more people and funding. Hard numbers that show product lifespan and estimated maintenance cost will make exoskeleton sales that much easier.
Seventh and eight are claim validations and refining the target audience. There are no two ways about it, this will require a lot of money, studies and time. Best use practices and understanding who stands to benefit the most from using an exoskeleton is still a work in progress. The presentation by Dr. Dylan Edwards on the Ekso GT presents a window on how this is done for one of the many medical devices currently in the field.
Ninth are reviews and testimonials. People want to know what others think of a product. Arguably this is one of the main reasons why Amazon became so successful. How many of us skip the manufacturer description and go directly for the user reviews when researching a potential purchase? Without a proven track record and few people that have shared their experiences with the devices any exoskeleton purchase still appears very risky. Fortunately this will change with time as more devices go into use and non-disclosure agreements expire or are deemed no longer necessary.
In at number ten is vendors and suppliers. I imagine that in the near future, stores that specialize exclusively in marketing exoskeleton products will begin to appear. Alternatively, large distributors might start adding exoskeleton products to their catalogs. In May 2016 in an industry first the giant 3M added StrongArm Technology V22 and FLx suits to their website.
Eleventh is setting expectations. Sometimes there is just no escaping the long shadow of Iron Man and science fiction. While science fiction exoskeletons create excitement for the exoskeleton industry, they also do way too much on screen. Compare film and television exoskeletons to the Star Trek communicator. The Star Trek communicator did one thing and one thing only, it allowed for wireless communication between crew members. That of course eventually became the cell phone. In contrast, science fiction exoskeletons, especially Iron Man do way too many things at the same time, almost to the point of magic. It will take time, but eventually people will recognize that exoskeletons are just like any current robot, they excel the more the environment is controlled and the task is specialized.
Finally come trade organizations. Until recently every single company was going at it by itself. Recently there have been a string of public announcements of collaborations such as the Wyss Institute working with ReWalk and Ekso Bionics teaming up with Vodafone on wireless communication. There is also the acquisition of Interactive Motion Technologies by Bionic Labs and the purchase of Equipois by Ekso Bionics. Expect to see much greater consolidation within the exoskeleton industry. This will make it much easier for consumers to connect their needs to the products that are already available.
With so many requirements is the exoskeleton industry is the inflection point far away?
Before you panic that there is such a long list of things that need to happen before sales start flowing realize that all of this work is already being done. Exoskeleton companies, government agencies, private associations and even customer companies have been working on all of the listed points for years.
The number of studies that are being published is increasing, and many more are on the way. Researchers are becoming more comfortable with exoskeletons. They are understanding better who can benefit from using them and how to quantify the study results. Using trial and error, procedures and best use practices are already being written. Studies are going to become more accurate with more clearly defined results.
Government agencies have also not been idle. Companies, universities, militaries and various safety, and standards agencies have already began laying the groundwork for standardized testing. At this point it is not a question of if there will be methods and procedures for analyzing exos but how many? It is possible that at least in the beginning there might be separate standards for Asia, Europe and North America until those start consolidating.
And it is not just governments and exoskeletons companies. The Wearable Robotics Association has already been working for over a year to bridge the gap between exoskeleton companies and their future customers. It is very likely that other similar organizations will appear throughout the globe. Their efforts are already having a large impact on the speed of exoskeleton proliferation.
Companies are also getting better at communicating the capabilities of their products. Ekso Bionics just hosted its first open house during which it opened its doors to the public for the first time. The company is also hosting webinars as are Hocoma and ReWalk. Exoskeleton companies have also been a lot more active during trade shows. Commercial and research groups are hosting 3 major exoskeleton events (WearRA16, Cybathlon, WeRob2016) in 2016. In addition, more exoskeleton companies have been making appearances at trade shows. For more on future and past exoskeleton gatherings refer to our events list.
Finally, this is not a one sided effort where only the exoskeleton companies are pushing forward. Some companies have been very interested in exoskeleton technology and have been conducting their own studies. For example, this week it was revealed that the BMW plant in Spartanburg is doing a soft exoskeleton launch. BMW has been quietly testing the Ekso Works Vest by Ekso Bionics and Chairless Chair by Noonee for the last several months, building their own opinion on what does and does not work. Currently details of the study are under a non-disclosure agreement, so it is not known if their findings will become public. Still, it is a great example of a customer company also pushing to understand proper exoskeleton utilization. There are at least half a dozen other major businesses that are also doing their own investigative research using a few pilot exoskeleton units.
I hope that this article gives everyone a good overview of the exoskeleton industry. Just increasing sales through overzealous marketing teams is not the solution. But I also think that it is easy to see why some people are panicking that sales orders are low and will be low for at least the next half year. However, I also hope that I have convinced you that the major players in the industry are very well aware of the hurdles in front of them and are working very hard to overcome them. The exoskeleton industry inflection point is now within reach. I expect at least 5 of the major exoskeleton players to start turning a profit within three years and most likely much earlier than that.