Report envisions exoskeletons as impactful part of construction’s future

12 April 2021 - Published by Amy McCready
Exoskeleton use is ripe for growth - in 5-10 years, they may become a normal sight on construction sites, according to a newly published report.

One of Scotland’s largest construction and infrastructure companies recently laid out its visions and predictions for the future of the construction industry, the technologies it will adopt and the benefits that will bring. In it, the report nods to exoskeletons and their powerful potential to impact construction workers’ lives.

Construction Scotland Innovation Centre (CSIC), EXSKALLERATE partner and supporter of the report, echoes that exoskeletons will become a large part of construction in coming years. Not just because of its innovation but because of its ability to enhance prospects for SMEs and the quality of working people’s lives.

Impact on construction

Construction companies could benefit significantly from exoskeletons. Roles in construction are often strenuous, demand on the body is high, and injury likelihood is also high. Musculoskeletal disorders developed from on-site tasks are the most common kind of injury in construction.1

The Built Environment Futures report, written by researchers from Glasgow Caledonian University and produced by Robertson Group, says wearable technologies like exoskeletons have “the potential to improve efficiency, productivity and occupational health and safety in the construction industry.”

For this reason, the report classifies exoskeletons as being highly impactful.

Exoskeleton use, both active and passive kinds, have been not yet been widely adopted. The report predicts that passive exoskeletons will be the most popular kind in construction due to their lower cost and not relying on a power source. This flexibility fits well into a construction site.

If SMEs adopt this technology, the benefits will be significant. Both in the long-term with improved employee longevity but also in the short-term with strengthened capability, productivity and satisfaction.

Timeframe

Exoskeletons may become a standard part of kit on a construction site “in the not-so-distant future,” according to the researchers. They predict exoskeleton adoption in construction is coming in the next 5-10 years. Therefore, this will be a medium to long term shift.

This progress could accelerate, however, depending on the availability, accessibility and demand. SMEs need to be reached and made familiar with the technology itself, changing their outlook on the benefits of exoskeletons, a goal the EXSKALLERATE project is aiming to achieve.

Barriers

SMEs make up a large share of the construction industry. In the UK, for example, it peaked at 48% in 2019.2

One of the largest challenges for an SME taking on new technology is cost: “few, if any, construction companies have adopted them due to cost issues.” The report predicts that as prices lower, SMEs will feel more comfortable investing – a process that is already beginning, it says.

Similar to highlighting the benefits of exoskeletons, addressing barriers is a key part of their adoption in construction and unlocking a viable future for them in our sector. Listening to SMEs’ concerns is the beginning point in that process.

Useful exoskeletons for construction

Many kinds of exoskeletons exist – some exoskeletons help with heavy lifting, some target support for the back/hip-knee-ankle and some can be used for tool-handling, for example.

The futures report lists some exoskeletons as being particularly applicable to construction, seeing these as playing a key part in the future of work on-site.

1. Mounted Arm Support for tool-holding

This would be useful for heavy tool-wielding construction workers such as those doing masonry, excavation, landscaping or installation.

2. Back Supporting Exosuit

Back strain or injury is common on-site. Risk is elevated when hauling, lifting, or bending for extended times.

3. ‘Chairless chair’ technology

Separate research, conducted by the University of Hong Kong, found lower-limb exoskeletons were to some extent appropriate for every kind of on-site housebuilder. This makes exoskeletons that support bending widely applicable in future adoption.

Some kinds of exoskeletons will be more appropriate than others and some will not be appropriate at all. If an exoskeleton becomes too cumbersome or cannot be functionally added into a worker’s day, it won’t be used even if it remains otherwise beneficial.

For this reason, SMEs should make certain considerations before choosing or adopting a particular exoskeleton. Still, as Robertson’s report outlines, the future for them looks bright with far more untapped potential to grow.

The next steps

Alan Johnston, of Construction Scotland Innovation Centre (CSIC), says “Robertson’s Futures report gives insight into construction’s future and exoskeleton’s place within that future. If this report is the vision of the industry, then the EXSKALLERATE project is the application of that vision specifically for exoskeletons.

“EXSKALLERATE is the kind of project that we could look back on as helping change construction’s future landscape, changing what a construction sites looks like and how people feel when working on one.

We are particularly interested in the innovative aspects of exoskeletons. It is exactly the kind of innovation we want to bring to SMEs, something forward-looking, sustainable and valuable in the long-term.”

 

References

[1] Sobeih TM, Salem O, Daraiseh N, Genaidy A, Shell R. Psychosocial factors and musculoskeletal disorders in the construction industry: a systematic review. Theoretical Issues in Ergonomics Science, 7 (3):329-44. 2006

[2] Statista, Percentage of small and medium enterprises (SME) in the construction sector with growth plans for the next 12 months in the United Kingdom (UK) from 4th quarter 2011 to 2nd quarter 2019* https://www.statista.com/statistics/291545/uk-construction-sme-small-and-medium-enterprises-with-growth-plans