Lowe’s is testing exoskeletons for its employees

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(This post originally appeared on The Washington Post)

I looked it up on Dictionary.com and an exoskeleton is defined as “an external covering or integument, especially when hard, as the shells of crustaceans.” Fair enough. So why exactly would a handful of employees at Lowe’s want to wear such a thing? It’s about safety. And better productivity. And it could be the uniform of tomorrow’s employee (assuming they haven’t all been replaced by robots).

Working at the hardware retailer can be a tough job for some. The store’s inventory isn’t just made up of lightbulbs and screws. There are outdoor grills, lumber, appliances and other items that require some pretty heavy lifting. So, according to this report on CNN.com, that’s where the exoskeleton comes in.

Employees climb into a suit that’s “somewhat similar to putting on a rock climbing harness and a backpack,” the broadcaster reported. The suit comes with “carbon-fiber shafts” that run along the employee’s back and thighs. Energy is stored (like a spring) when a person bends over and then it’s released when standing up, making it easier to perform those back-breaking tasks.

The idea is like “Iron Man,” without Robert Downey, Jr. – a lightweight suit that gives the typical warehouse employee the power to leap tall pallets in a single bound and perform case-picking, or a construction worker the ability to lift materials without first swallowing four Advil’s. You get the point. The store’s employees, so far, appear to love it. And why not?

“Who wouldn’t want to work in a place where you get to wear an exosuit?” asked Kyle Nel, executive director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs in the CNN report.  Let’s leave that question open for now.

Iron Man aside, exoskeleton technology is a potential huge way for companies in certain industries to improve a worker’s productivity, and contribute to a healthier and more profitable workforce. That will make the employees at Lowe’s happier, as well as the company’s accountants (who I dearly hope are not wearing exoskeleton suits and never will). This is why many larger companies like Lockheed Martin, Hyundai, Panasonic and Honda Motor are taking the technology so seriously.

“We’ll add a jetpack in 2018,” Nel kiddingly told CNN. Given where this is all going, I’m not so sure he’s kidding. And I bet neither would Tony Stark.


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