What is the shape of the ever growing exoskeleton industry in 2016 and what does the term mean in the first place? In 2016, exoskeleton industry is growing at an unprecedented rate. Every month one or two research groups will spinoff into a startup or a small exoskeleton company will become renowned enough to become visible internationally. The older and more established exoskeleton companies are continuously searching for new applications and releasing brand new or revised wearables.
With this growth spurt, it is becoming useful to organize and define the exoskeleton market. In this article we will explore:
- The term, “exoskeleton industry” is widely used, but what does it mean?
- Where does the exoskeleton industry fit?
- What does it look like in 2016?
- How did the terminology come about?
Defining “exoskeleton industry”
The term “exoskeleton” is currently the dominant word to describe all manners of wearables that provide some nature of physical interaction with the person wearing it. The exoskeleton could provide a physical boost, hinder the user on purpose or support the weight of an object that the user would otherwise have to support themselves.
Exoskeletons and the exoskeleton industry fall under wearables. However, wearables is a very general term that includes all manners of electronics and gadgets (example Fitbit) that do not have any physical interplay with the user. Exoskeletons also fall under robotics, but there are many passive exoskeletons that rely purely on biomechanics and have no electronics. Wearable robotics includes all powered orthotics and prosthetics (powered replacement legs and arms) but it again leaves out the passive devices and combines non-exoskeleton devices. Exoskeletons also fall under ergonomics, but again the term is too broad to be sufficiently descriptive.
A term that was really popular for a few years to describe the exoskeleton industry was biomechatronics. Biomechatronics is the merger of biology, mechanical and electrical engineering. However, this term too fell out of favor as more and more passive exoskeletons were introduced.
As it stands, exoskeleton manufacturing now lies in the overlapping area between biology and mechanics (biomechanics). Powered exoskeletons also include electronics and lie at the crossing of all three disciplines.
What does the exoskeleton industry look like in 2016?
In 2016 the exoskeleton industry can be divided into four categories or subfields: Industrial, Medical, Military and Commercial. The four subfields can be further subdivided by device type and application.
Wearable robotics designed to be used in an industrial setting is the fastest growing field of exoskeleton development. Exoskeletons for work and industry can be used at construction sites, dry-docks, factories, warehouses and even surgical rooms. In a recent presentation by the Wearable Robotics Association, Dr. Joseph Hitt described exoskeletons for manufacturing and construction as the “low hanging fruit” of the exoskeleton market. Exoskeletons for work and industry can be separated into 6 categories: tool holding, chairless chairs, back support, power gloves, full body powered suits, and additional / supernumerary robotics. For much more see: 22 Exoskeletons For Work and Industry Into 6 Categories (April 2016)
Wearable robotics designed to be used as a rehabilitation or augmentation medical devices is the second oldest field of exoskeleton development. The first working medical exoskeleton was created in 1972 by the Mihajlo Pupin Institute in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (modern-day Serbia). A major breakthrough was the recognition that exoskeletons can perfectly recreate the same motion repeatedly thousands of times. This translates to patients being able to perform more exercise repetitions in the same amount of time with higher consistency. Additionally, it is now being demonstrated that medical exoskeletons can provide much more useful rehabilitation. Newer exoskeleton software prevents users from “riding along” during exercises. Patients also have to hit correct stances and will not receive assistance until they themselves initiate the exercise motion.
The medical exoskeleton subfield can be broken down into six parts: stationary lower body, stationary upper body for hand and fingers rehabilitation, stationary lower body rehabilitation and augmentation, and mobile upper body exoskeletons. For a much more detail, see 42 Medical Exoskeletons into 6 Categories. (June 2016)
Wearable robotics for the military is the most dynamic subset of the exoskeleton industry. Military exoskeletons are being tested by the U.S., China, Canada, South Korea, Great Britain, Russia and Australia, and these are just the projects that the public is aware of. Many other military exoskeleton projects remain secret. There is still enough information in the public domain to see how much military exoskeletons have changed over the last 10 years and the new direction exo developers have taken. Military exoskeletons currently fit into five categories: stationary, energy scavenging, lower body, full body and passive. Continue reading: 19 Military Exoskeletons into 5 Categories (July 2016)
Civilian and commercial exoskeletons comprise the smallest subfield of the exoskeleton industry, but they also hold the greatest commercial promise. The main potential for commercial exoskeletons is their possibility to be accepted as motorized transportation devices that require minimum infrastructure. However, this is still in the distant future. For now, commercial exoskeletons are limited in scope to augmentation, hiking, and sports injury prevention. Commercial exoskeletons are exos that can be used outside of a medical rehabilitation context and are not for work & industry. For more information and details see: Commercial Exoskeletons (August 2016)
Origin of categories and terminology:
All of the current information and its categorization is based on prior work that has been made publicly available. Two individuals and organizations, in particular, have been most instrumental in making sense of the exoskeleton industry. In his 2015 Show and Tell presentation, Otherlab Orthotics CEO Tim Swift presented a model for partitioning the industry into four main categories. Full presentation:
In his 2015 Show and Tell presentation, Otherlab Orthotics CEO Tim Swift presented a model for partitioning the industry into four main categories. These are the now familiar: military, industrial, consumer, and medical. Full presentation: Otherlab Orthotics – A Fundamental Jump in Technology (October 2015) Otherlab Orthotics is a maker of light-weight, soft, inflatable exoskeletons and it is located in San Fransisco, CA.
Another person that deserves special recognition is Dr. Thomas Sugar from the Wearable Robotics Association (WearRA). Dr. Sugar and the association were to the first to make publically available an extensive list of wearable companies and industry changing research projects. The work of WearRA has been instrumental in increasing the visibility of the exoskeleton industry. At their wearable robotics conference in February 2016, even researchers with a decade or more of experience in the exoskeleton field were left surprised by the sheer number of products and companies that have emerged. You can visit WearRA for yourself at wearablerobotics.com and you can read more about the association here: Wearable Robotics Association Linking The Global Community (February 2016)
This is a work in progress:
If the past is any indicator, as the exoskeleton industry continues to grow and expand so will the terminology associated with it. A set of commonly agreed upon terms and categories is essential in establishing a dialogue between the dozens of companies, labs and work groups that are operating with this technology all over the world. It might seem petty, but quality meetings have come to a screeching halt over a simple disagreement if a soft exoskeleton should still be an exosuit if used for industry. By having predefined categories such arguments become meaningless. In the previous example the device in question would be an exoskeleton first, in the industry category and whether it is a soft exo or exosuit becomes a meaningless tertiary characteristic.
Expect the exoskeleton industry to continue evolving quickly. For example, just over the last month, a new subcategory of industrial exoskeletons has started to emerge: arm support vests. These are spring loaded vests that support the arms of a worker that has to conduct a repetitive overhead task. In the years to come, expect more additions and modifications.