Bionic Tech Is the Real Deal

Long a robotic industrial leader, Japan is getting close to employing bionic suits to boost factory worker productivity. Resistance is futile

It's a scene straight out of a sci-fi film. A diminutive, middle-aged worker with his arms and chest covered in space-age armor squats at his station along an assembly line. As he hoists a 35-lb. steel beam, his suit hisses to life. Effortlessly, he lifts the beam with one hand, holding it steady while welding it to the chassis of a heavy-duty power shovel. It's a task that normally might hurt a man of his stature, but he has hardly broken a sweat.

That's because this factory hand is a cyborg: part man, part machine. He's participating in an ongoing experiment that Hiroshi Kobayashi, a Tokyo University of Science researcher, has been conducting in recent months. Kobayashi's two "muscle suit" prototypes—one to boost arm strength, the other to ease back strain—are being tested at Chiba-based Sumitomo Construction Machinery's plant just east of Tokyo.

The 3-kg. (7-lb.) contraptions have an aluminum frame and rely on compressed air to activate spongy, springy actuators that mimic the clenching and relaxing of real muscles. Depending on the trials, Sumitomo Construction Machinery's welders could be sporting the latest in "wearable robotics" soon. "I'm hoping they will be ready sometime this year," he says.

From Fiction to Reality

The notion of boosting human strength, or replacing lost limbs, with robotic technology has been around for decades. The 1972 novel Cyborg by Martin Caidin inspired a cult TV series in the U.S. that same decade, The Six Million Dollar Man. More recently, the screenwriters behind the Star Trek series cooked up a menacing fictional race called the Borg, humanoids implanted with 24th century cybernetics, bent on assimilating every living creature in the universe.

However, less extreme applications of bionics have been rolled out for real in recent years. New high-tech prosthetic devices using sensors and built-in microprocessors have been developed to imitate some of the actions of feet and hands. Then there are the interesting industrial applications now coming aboard in Japan.

Wearable robotics have the potential to become a trendy way of squeezing extra efficiency out of factory workers. Though researchers have talked about the idea for years, manufacturers are now giving it serious thought, thanks to the miniaturization of computer chips and the emergence of strong, lightweight composites.

Helping With the Labor Supply?

Engineers from Toyoda Gosei, a Japanese auto parts supplier, and a French oil producer, have contacted Kobayashi about his invention. Last June, Toyota (TM) reportedly formed a development team to design bionic suits for the company's own assembly plants. They might come in handy for workers who now have to use dangling mechanical arms to lift dashboards and other bulky modules that get installed in cars.

It's no surprise that Japan is a pioneer in automation. After all, Japanese companies got a head start on the rest of the world when they began cramming their factories with industrial robots nearly three decades ago. The country now accounts for roughly a third of the estimated 1 million industrial robots in use worldwide.

Survival is one reason for the aggressive spending on factory tech. For Japanese car and high-tech manufacturers trying to keep low-cost rivals in Asia at bay, it's either innovate or die. Manufacturing executives are also worried laborers will be in short supply as Japan's population grays. Robo-suits, for instance, might create new opportunities for women in physically taxing jobs or allow elderly workers to avoid retirement longer.

"Incredible Dividends"

For the technology to spread, it will have to clear safety tests, says ARC Advisory Group analyst Stefan Surpitski. The hope is that they will reduce injuries from repetitive tasks and losses from disability payouts.

"Anytime the physical stress placed on a worker can be reduced, it yields incredible dividends both for the worker and the corporation," says Surpitski, an automation expert at the Dedham, Mass.-based consultancy and research firm.

Imagine the possibilities in medicine and defense: An elderly or disabled patient might regain the ability to walk with robotic legs, doctors or nurses would have an easier time lifting bed-ridden patients, or soldiers could trek for days without tiring, says Darwin Caldwell, robotics research director at the Italian Institute of Technology, in Genoa.

That day isn't as far off as you might think. At the University of Berkeley's Robotics Laboratory, researchers are working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to test the Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton, or Bleex, for the battlefield. Attach the mechanical leg braces and rigid metal backpack frame and a heavy bag becomes a cinch to carry over long distances.

Up Against the Funding

Cincinnati-based Yobotics has developed a prototype RoboWalker that straps on and helps a person walk, climb stairs, or carry heavy loads. And the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago's Todd Kuiken has created a bionic arm that's operated by an amputee's nerve impulses.

Yet none has gone beyond testing or small-scale use. The reason: funding. Researchers say the Japanese are pulling ahead because they outspend everyone else. "Japanese companies—and perhaps the general public—are typically more open to new technologies and this helps to drive the market," says Caldwell.

It shows in the progress they're making. At Tsukuba University, north of Tokyo, Yoshiyuki Sankai will soon rent a full-body exoskeleton, dubbed HAL, to the first on a waiting list of disabled patients. HAL, which resembles the Storm Trooper suits in Star Wars and is made from an aluminum alloy used in Japan's World War II-era Zero fighter planes, straps on along the outsides of a person's limbs and responds to the electrical signals nerves send to muscles.

Not Quite Ready-to-Wear

Meanwhile, Matsushita Electric Industrial's (MC) Realive, a rehab tool for partially paralyzed stroke victims, could be available as early as next year. When worn, the pullover garment senses the motion of one arm and tells rubber muscles surrounding the other arm to imitate the movement.

Nifty technology, for sure, but only if you're willing to spend thousands of dollars. Matsushita's Realive is expected to go for $16,500 apiece. Tokyo University of Science's Kobayashi figures his muscle suits will cost $5,000 to make. To hold down costs, he has minimized the number of muscle-like actuators per suit. The trade-off is that it limits the range of tasks that the wearer can perform. And he's constantly making tiny improvements.

"I had to change the design for Sumitomo Construction Machinery's welders because it was making their shoulders sore," he says. So it may be some time before you're picking one of Kobayashi's suits off the rack and wearing it to rearrange the furniture at home. But make no mistake: Bionic technology is no longer just science fantasy, it's a bonafide tech with real-world applications.

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