Posted in | Consumer Robotics

Lowe's, Virginia Tech Partner to Develop Wearable Robotic Suit with Lift-Assist Technology

“It’s a physical job.”

That’s what Andy Kania, a night operations support manager, said about what he does at the Christiansburg, Va., Lowe’s store. Kania and his team of six work through the night lifting and moving merchandise from the back of the store to the shelves.

They touch nearly every item in the store, and often move items like five-gallon paint buckets and bags of concrete. Although they’ve been trained on safety and proper lifting techniques, these repetitive tasks can sometimes cause fatigue. But without Kania’s team, shelves and aisles would be empty and the store wouldn’t be ready to serve customers.

A Lowe's associate in Christiansburg, Va. walks down the aisle wearing an exosuit. (Credit: Lowe's Companies)

Kania enjoys his job – he even loves the night shift – but acknowledges that it requires physicality.

“At the gym, you can work different sets of muscles different days. However, we tend to do the same motion again and again,” Kania said.

Enter Lowe’s Innovation Labs, the company’s disruptive innovation hub. The team focuses on finding innovative ways to improve how Lowe’s serves its customers and employees. This includes trying to help employees become more effective at doing their job.

And that’s just what the exosuit is designed to do.

Born from a narrative concept focused on giving employees “superpowers,” the exosuit is engineered to help them exert less energy when lifting. That hopefully means less fatigue.

To develop the suit, Lowe’s reached out to robotics expert, Dr. Alan Asbeck, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Virginia Tech, and his team of students from the robotics lab.

So, how does it work?

By using textiles as a human interface, the suits are conformable and flexible. Carbon fiber in the back and the legs allow the suits to twist and bend with the person. As the person bends, the carbon fiber stores energy, much like a bow that’s pulled and ready to launch an arrow. When the person stands back up, the suit returns the energy to them, similar to how a bow launches an arrow.

Kania and his team were chosen to put the suits to the test. The physical nature of their roles, combined with the store’s close proximity to Virginia Tech, made the team perfect candidates. For several months, Lowe’s Innovation Labs and Virginia Tech met and consulted with employees, learning about their jobs, routines and even their movements. Everything the teams learned was then used to design and tweak the suit.

The employees were curious, but excited throughout the whole process.

“I thought it was pretty cool,” said Chris Duncan. “I mean, how often do you get an opportunity to do something like this? It’s like being a test pilot.”

Duncan, a stocker at the store, has a job very similar to Kania’s, except he works the daytime shift and is responsible for moving items like countertops and appliances.

Although he was impressed when he first saw the exosuit, he admits he was skeptical, too. But, for the last several weeks, he’s been wearing the suit during his shift, and can now confirm it works.

Co-worker Christy Turpin has a similar experience.

“I come home and I’m not immediately ready for bed,” she said, laughing. She likes the way the suit helps her “bounce” back up after bending.

Kania is on board, too. He’s been surprised by how light and easy to wear the suit is, and said it definitely helps him squat and lift products.

So far, so good for testing, but the work isn’t over yet. Throughout the next several months, Lowe’s Innovation Labs and the team at Virginia Tech will continue to collect feedback from employees at the store about the suit and how it can be improved.

Testing will continue, but employees are proud that their company is taking the initiative to create something that will help them.

“It shows they care about their employees,” Turpin said.

Store Manager Joe Sirico agrees.

“The idea that Lowe’s is looking at ways to help our people on the sales floor says a lot about our company and our values,” Sirico said. “It shows that we’re here to help our employees. It’s a reminder for me that it’s not all about sales – it’s also about helping people.”


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