Introducing the new exoskeleton cost-benefit analysis tool from TNO!
Many workers are still exposed to heavy work. This increases the risk of complaints in the back, neck and shoulders, especially when lifting heavy, working overhead and working in awkward or uncomfortable positions. Using an exoskeleton can support workers by reducing the load on these body areas and decreasing fatigue. When companies consider implementing an exoskeleton, following questions often arise:
How expensive is an exoskeleton and are these costs worth it?
Commonly, costs and benefits are expressed quantitative, preferably in monetary value. However, qualitative factors, such as increased job attractiveness, can be equally important to consider. Figure 1 gives an overview of the different qualitative and quantitative costs and benefits.
Quantitative costs and benefits
Besides purchasing costs, multiple other quantitative cost types can be distinguished. Among these, are time costs and, possibly, consultancy costs for getting informed about exoskeletons and their potential in a specific work setting. Other costs are for preparatory activities, for instance the costs in time to learn how to adjust and use the exoskeleton. Service and maintenance costs can be distinguished as well, just like repair costs in case of exoskeleton damage. Finally, any losses in productivity can be considered as a cost, e.g. when working speed is lower while getting used to the exoskeleton.
On the other hand, if exoskeleton use would lead to a higher productivity, this would form a quantitative benefit. Also, the quality of the work might increase in particular due to less fatigue. When getting fatigued, workers might rush their task execution, which could lead to quality issues, such as mistakes and damage requiring rework. Another important and sought after benefit could be a reduction in sick leave and disability among workers. Saving one day a year for each exoskeleton user can create a business case.
All above mentioned costs and benefits can be expressed in currency and are therefore labeled here as quantitative.
Qualitative costs and benefits
There are more factors that can be affected by exoskeletons and can be important for employers, even if they are not easily translated into money. One of these factors is worker well-being and work satisfaction. Because of the exoskeleton support, workers might feel less fatigue or pain during the working day. They might feel more fit, both physically and mentally. Older workers may feel more confident to be able to reach their retirement age in good health. An exoskeleton that makes hard work more enjoyable, will not only lead to a healthier and motivated workforce but will also increase job attractiveness which could be highly relevant considering the current shortages on the labor market. Finally, exoskeleton usage in a company may show that the company cares about their employees, which may enhance the employer’s image.
Figure 1: Overview of the quantitative and qualitative costs and benefits of purchasing an exoskeleton.
On the other hand, wearing an exoskeleton at work might influence the personal image of the individual employee. Colleagues who do not wear an exoskeleton could react negatively or skeptical to the use of an exoskeleton. Furthermore, wearing the exoskeleton might lead to hindrance in certain movements or in certain tasks. This could lead to a decrease in productivity and less job satisfaction.
In order to understand how these factors can weigh differently, dependent on the use case the exoskeleton is implemented in, we will introduce 3 different scenarios. How does the exoskeleton implementation influence the various qualitative and quantitative factors and what counts most in the different scenarios?
A logistics department struggles with the high sick leave of their employees. Nearly 70% of the employees have or had back issues from the high physical work load. The company decides to implement back exoskeletons to support their order pickers and to decrease the sick leave. After a couple of weeks they see the first effects. The order pickers using the exoskeleton feel supported in certain tasks. They also report feeling less fatigued at the end of the day and experiencing less back problems. This leads to a decrease in sick leave. However, the exoskeleton hinders the luggage handlers at certain tasks, so they only wear the exoskeleton during the tasks that they need support. Thus, an increase in productivity does not show up. Still, as luggage handlers get supported during their physical load, work productivity and work quality can be kept constant.
The CEO of a welding company gets reported that their employees show a decrease in productivity. After further investigation among the welders, it becomes clear that especially welders that work overhead for a longer period of time, struggle with fatigued shoulder muscles. They report shoulder and neck pain and that they cannot keep up the productivity they have at other tasks. The CEO decides to invest in arm-support exoskeletons to prevent welders from serious injuries and to increase productivity in these tasks again. The implementation costs the company more money than expected, as they have to invest quite some time to get the employees used to the exoskeleton. Furthermore they hire an expert that explains how to adjust and use the exoskeleton. First results show that the welders feel less fatigued when using the arm-support exoskeleton for overhead work, probably preventing serious injuries in the future. This yields higher productivity, as they need less breaks, but also increases work quality, as they do less mistakes.
A plasterer stops working 15 years before his retirement as he suffers from serious shoulder problems. The high physical work load as a plasterer forced him to stop the job he loves. Currently, he is rehabilitating to improve his mobility and strength of the shoulder again without pain. Then he hears from a colleague that there is a new device that can support plasterers to decrease the loading on their shoulders during work. He feels hopeful and decides to give it a try. When wearing the exoskeleton he cannot work pain free yet, but he feels supported by the exoskeleton, which gives him a safe feeling during work. Even though it is a lot of money for him to spend, he decides to buy himself an exoskeleton. Over the next 6 months he slowly starts getting back into work, while still following is rehabilitation. His pain gets less and he also feels mentally stronger, as he is finally able to do again what he loves.
In the light of the three scenarios one main question arises:
What is the biggest factor for saving costs?
The answer to this question largely depends on the use case and the intended goal of exoskeleton implementation. Furthermore, especially the last scenario shows that saving costs might not always be the most important factor when implementing exoskeletons at work. In general, if you purchase something you want to get the costs of this purchase back as fast as possible. Considering the case of the plasterer though, you might wonder whether the return of costs really matters. The health and happiness of the individual employee is so much more important and will most likely also benefit the company and the customers.
One important difference between the scenarios is that at scenario 2 the exoskeleton implementation is used at primary prevention. The employees are still healthy and the exoskeleton implementation aims at preventing these people to get sick. In the other two scenarios the exoskeletons are implemented as a secondary prevention. By using the exoskeleton employees on work-related sick leave can return back to work. Considering that work-related sick leave from musculoskeletal disease in a sector such as plastering is as high as 4.5%, more gain can be expected in the secondary prevention. Nevertheless, aiming for the primary prevention is as important to keep the employees healthy and happy as long as possible.
As a conclusion, whether the purchase of an exoskeleton is worth its costs, depends on the individual use case and the intended effect of implementing an exoskeleton. In any case, the health of the employee should be the main goal when choosing for an exoskeleton implementation.