Lowe's rolls out robot exosuits to improve employee productivity

Lowe's and Virginia Tech partnered to develop a wearable robotic suit with lift-assist technology to help employees more easily move products and avoid muscle fatigue.

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Lowe's employees are getting a futuristic new uniform: A robotic suit. The home improvement company partnered with Virginia Tech researchers to develop an exosuit, or a wearable robot suit with lift-assist technology, for store employees to wear. The lightweight exosuit is designed to help employees more easily lift and move products throughout the store, and to help avoid muscle fatigue.

"Our employees ensure our stores are always ready for customers," said Kyle Nel, executive director of Lowe's Innovation Labs, in a press release. "As a way to support them, we found a unique opportunity to collaborate with Virginia Tech to develop one of the first retail applications for assistive robotic exosuits."

The first four suits are already in use by a stocking team at the Lowe's store in Christiansburg, VA.

The idea for the suit was pioneered by Lowe's Innovation Lab, the company's disruptive technology arm that works with science fiction writers to envision how technology can provide "superpowers" to employees to maximize performance. Lowe's partnered with Alan Asbeck, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Virginia Tech, and a team of eight graduate and undergraduate students from Virginia Tech's Assistive Robotics Laboratory, to bring the exosuit to life.

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After several months of testing, the two parties designed and developed the exosuit prototype. It takes the form of a lightweight, wearable suit that reinforces proper lifting form, in order to make lifting heavy objects in stores easier for employees. The suit can absorb energy and deliver it back to the employee, allowing them to exert less force in their movements. It also contains carbon fiber in the legs and back, which help employees who must bend and stand spring back up more easily. Therefore, Lowe's products such as bags of concrete or buckets of paint feel significantly lighter to lift.

"Over the past couple years, human assistive devices have become an area of interest," Asbeck said in the press release. "But, our technology is different, not only because of the suit's soft, flexible elements, but because we're putting the prototype in a real world environment for an extended period of time."

In the coming months, the Virginia Tech team will continue working with Lowe's to determine the physical impact of the suit, and study the suit's effect on employee engagement and the work experience.

These suits are one example of how robots can complement human workers, rather than replace them. As TechRepublic's Hope Reese noted, robots still rely on humans for assistance in factories and other workplaces, and coordination with workers is crucial to the success of many operations. And while some workers will eventually see their jobs replaced by automation, many others, like the Lowe's employees, will see their work improved by robots.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

1. Lowe's and Virginia Tech recently partnered to develop an exosuit, a wearable robot suit with lift-assist technology designed to help employees more easily lift and move products throughout the store and to help avoid muscle fatigue.

2. Four of the suits are currently being piloted in a Lowe's store in Christiansburg, VA.

3. In the next several months, Lowe's and Virginia Tech will monitor how the suits are working, and their impact on employee engagement.

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A Lowe's associate in Christiansburg, VA walks down the aisle wearing an exosuit

Image: PRNewsfoto/Lowe's Companies, Inc.