Norfolk Naval Shipyard Tests Exoskeleton for Heavy Lifting
Norfolk Naval Shipyard is trialing an exoskeleton suit for heavy-lifting jobs as a way to improve productivity and lower the risk of injury. The Levitate Airframe exoskeleton is already used on the assembly line by BMW, Toyota, John Deere and Vermeer, and Norfolk's Technology & Innovation working group decided to see if it could also help in the shipyard.
The system is of particular interest for the yard's Structural Department. “We do lead shielding and a lot of heavy plate lifting,” said Nuclear Director William Stubbs. “It’s a lot of strain on my team, so if there’s anything available that can help protect my folks, I want to use it.”
Manufacturer Levitate Technologies says that the suit can reduce the exertion required for lifting by as much as 80 percent. It works by transferring loads from the arms to the body's core, reducing strain on the shoulders and back. The Airframe's springs and pulleys automatically actuate as the arms are raised, then lower back down gradually with the user in a manner that tracks normal motion. As it acts as a structural frame to transfer loads from one area of the body to another, it does not rely on sensors or electric motors. This means that it does not require a battery or external power source, which makes it among the lightest and most compact exoskeleton systems on the market.
“You can feel the suit take away the strain from the simplest tasks like lowering and lifting,” said Stubbs. “What’s more is that it’s comfortable on the user. Granted, it’s like an extension of your body, so it may take some getting used to. But it’s easy to learn and easy to use.”
The T&I group's robotics subcommittee has organized worker training and certification to use the devices across the waterfront. Initial implementation of the Levitate Airframe is set to take place during the carrier USS Harry S. Truman's next maintenance availability.
“There’s been so much interest across the shipyard for these suits, so to finally have this technology in hand and also provide the folks with the training they need to properly operate it, we can start using this technology directly in the shops,” said Edwin Guerra, the lead for the robotics subcommittee. “This is a huge win for the shipyard."