In the world of aircraft assembly, manufacturers face a curious problem: To build aircraft components, human workers need to lift and manipulate large, heavy objects in awkward spaces, which can take a toll on the body and usually requires two lifters or more.
In similar industries, like automotive manufacturing, the answer is simple: install robot lifting and manipulating devices that can handle ten times (or hundreds of times) the weight lifted by a human arm. But on an aircraft production line, machines just aren’t up to the task. Most lifting jobs in this business still require human intelligence and precision, and these tasks often move from one place to another rather than occurring in a fixed location where a robot arm might be positioned.
Researchers at MIT are working on a unique solution that will keep employees safe and production rates high: a robot arm extension that can be comfortably attached the human body. These extensions will be able to move and rotate exactly like human arms, and they’ll be designed to handle lifting tasks that currently require multiple workers. Best of all, they’ll be precisely attuned to the motions of actual arms, so users will find them perfectly intuitive. Researchers hope that users will actually forget that they’re wearing the arm extensions as they go through the all the motions of a standard lifting task… minus the lifting.
But ideally, the robot arms won’t just be able to lift and position heavy loads; they’ll also support precision tasks that don’t specifically address heavy lifting. For example, the arms will help carpenters who need to hold a drill jig over a drilling location, or tool users who need to position and clamp objects in place before manipulating them. In some cases, replacing a ceiling panel or performing work directly overhead can challenge the worker by exceeding the range of motion for natural arms. In all of these cases, a supernumerary set of arms mounted at the hip or secured at the shoulder can help one employee accomplish the work of two or more.
Will robot arms become commercially available within the next few years? Only time will tell. Until then, check in with the manufacturing staffing experts at CSS for news and updates.