The Edge

These bionic vests give factory workers super strength and help prevent injuries

Key Points
  • A wearable robot, the Ekso Vest, gives factory workers ant-like strength and help with overhead tasks.
  • Ford is among the early users of the Ekso Vest, and is trying out the product in two of its U.S. plants.  
Ford is using bionic suits to help employees work safer

Ekso Bionics is best known as the creator of a robotic exoskeleton that helps injured or disabled people walk on their own. But in the last few years, the company has moved beyond medical devices, and is now making wearable robots to help workers in manufacturing and construction.

One major automaker, Ford, has taken the Ekso Vest into two of its U.S. plants in a trial.  The vest enhances the wearer's shoulder strength, making overhead tasks easier — like lifting heavy equipment, or holding a 3-pound drill aloft most of the day while bolting parts into cars or planes.

CNBC | Darren Weaver

CNBC visited Ekso headquarters in Richmond, Calif. to try out the Ekso Vest ourselves. 

The vest doesn't have any motors or electronics inside. It works with a series of springs that give the wearer a feeling of ant-like strenght, and an assisted lift of up to 15 pounds on each arm.

Ekso Bionics CEO Max Scheder-Bieschin explained, "The shoulder is a great joint with lots of degrees of freedom but it's a relatively weak joint. [The vest] helps people working overhead to be less prone to injuries."

CNBC | Darren Weaver

Ekso is also getting inbound inquiries from construction, aerospace and other manufacturers, and ramping up its production of the vest, according to the CEO.

Before selling the vests, Ekso put them through extensive testing in labs and out in the field, making sure they work in below-freezing temperatures, or when they're covered in concrete dust and dirt, for example. Ekso also enlists hundreds of people of different shapes and sizes to try out the vests, ensuring they can work for most employees in a factory or on a construction site.

CNBC | Darren Weaver

Ekso co-founder Russ Angold said one reason large companies like the Vest is that it was designed to augment human performance, rather than replace people with robots.