Boeing exo-skeleton

Boeing Co. employee Genaro Gonzales demonstrates how an exoskeleton apparatus can be used to help make heavy equipment easier to lift and repetitive tasks, such as riveting, less burdensome. Brad Nettles/Staff

Genaro Gonzales occasionally goes home with shoulder pain after reaching overhead to drive thousands of rivets into commercial airplane parts eight hours a day.

But new technology that Boeing Co. is helping to develop at its North Charleston campus soon could drastically reduce workplace injuries and the strain and fatigue workers like Gonzales feel as they perform repetitive tasks in the assembly of 787 Dreamliners and other jets.

The aerospace giant is among a handful of manufacturers nationwide bringing wearable exoskeleton vests to their production lines to improve ergonomics.

The vests Boeing is considering have spring-based mechanical cartridges in the upper arms to make heavy tools — like the 10-pound Huck gun Gonzales uses to drive rivets — feel lighter. The one-size-fits-all vests can be worn by anyone, but workers can adjust settings to match their personal preferences.

The technology also helps to improve workers' posture and supports their back and arms as they repeatedly drill holes, bundle wires and perform any number of other overhead tasks necessary to construct an airplane's fuselage.

"These particular systems aren't iron man systems to make you strong," said Chris Reid, an ergonomics engineer with Boeing. "This is more of an endurance-enhancing system."

Gonzales has used the technology a few times and says it has helped him tremendously.

"It used to be really tiring," he said of his job in the aft-body section of the Dreamliner assembly plant. "Using this product helped my shoulders, relieving the pressure and the weight that I feel."

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Boeing exo-skeleton

Boeing research engineer Kadon Kyte helps assembly worker Genaro Gonzales put on an exoskeleton vest. Kyte is helping to develop technology that Boeing workers can wear to make heavy equipment easier to lift and repetitive tasks less burdensome. Brad Nettles/Staff

It could still be several months, however, before the vests are a common site on Boeing's production floor.

Exoskeletons have been around for decades, but it's only been within the past few years that the technology has evolved to make them viable for workplace settings. More companies are considering the technology, with Ford Motor Co. saying it will introduce the vests at 15 auto plants in seven countries. Analysts expect the exoskeleton market to grow from $68 million in 2014 to $1.8 billion by 2025, according to a CBS News report.

So far, eight mechanics at Boeing's North Charleston site have gone through training to test the vests, and their experience with the technology will help Boeing decide what steps to take next.

Kadon Kyte, an ergonomics engineer and Boeing's principle exoskeleton investigator, said the company's goal is to bring the vests to more workers in more locations by the middle of next year.

Boeing initially considered using the technology in 2012 and put its plans into overdrive about two years ago with a large-scale assessment at three sites that build different types of planes with varying production rates: North Charleston, which makes wide-body planes; Renton, Wash., which makes single-aisle planes; and St. Louis, where F-15 fighter jets are made.

As part of that assessment, Boeing studied 10 years of safety data company-wide to see where injuries were occurring and what body parts were affected.

"We've completed objective laboratory assessments where we strap a ton of electrodes to individuals to measure their muscle activity," Kyte said. "Those studies have shown that using the vest does reduce muscle activity and lumbar loading — both shared and compressive forces at the lower back."

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Boeing exo-skeleton

Boeing research engineer Kadon Kyte is helping to develop an exoskeleton apparatus that workers can wear to make heavy equipment easier to lift while reducing the strain and fatigue from performing repetitive tasks. Brad Nettles/Staff

Boeing has taken what it's learned about workplace injuries and shared that information with manufacturers to help develop vests specifically for the workers who'll use them.

"We're matching them to the specific nature of the work, so we don't have to modify anything," Reid said. "They're ready to go. It's more about making sure we put them in the right place."

The company hasn't finalized which manufacturer it will pick, but Reid said cost — the vests can run in the thousands of dollars — isn't the major factor in picking a vendor.

"We're looking more at the efficacy of the systems — are they safe and effective," he said.

The popularity of the vests isn't in question, Reid said, adding the reception from employees has been "crazy."

"Everbody that sees them loves them and wants one," he said. "Getting folks to get on board has been easy because everyone knows how hard the work can be. You want to go home feeling as good as you felt when you came into work, and that's what these systems are helping to do."

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_