Lowe’s and Virginia Tech have co-developed an "exosuit," a robotic suit equipped with lift-assistance technology that Lowe’s store employees can wear on the job to help them lift and move products through stores more efficiently and with less fatigue-inducing effort, according to a Lowe’s press release.
The first four exosuits created are currently being used in a pilot program by the stocking team at Lowe’s Christiansburg, Va. Store. During the coming months, the retailer will work with a team at Virginia Tech to assess the physical impact of the suit. Lowe’s will also lead employee engagement studies to better understand the impact of the exosuit on the work experience.
The exosuit is lightweight, reinforces proper lifting form and makes heavy lifting easier by absorbing energy and delivering it back to the user, enabling them to exert less force to complete certain movements. As a wearer bends and stands, carbon fiber in the suit’s legs and back act like a taut bow ready to launch an arrow, helping them spring back up with greater ease. As a result, commonly lifted objects, like a bag of concrete or a five-gallon bucket of paint, feel significantly lighter to the user, the company said.
The new exosuits sound like something out of science fiction — part human, part machine. The funny thing is that Lowe's Innovation Lab really does work with science fiction writers to help them envision some of the technology advancements it pursues. The company said that creating actual narratives for these visions helps the the innovation organization decide what it wants to pursue.
The exosuit is drawn from one of these narratives; Lowe's envisioned how technology could provide special superpowers to employees to help them maximize on-the-job performance. The company needed a partner to help it bring this particular narrative to life, and found one in the form of Dr. Alan Asbeck, assistant professor in the Virginia Tech Department of Mechanical Engineering, and a team of eight graduate and undergraduate students from Virginia Tech’s Assistive Robotics Laboratory.
If you think it still sounds like Lowe's is taking a crazy leap into the future, remember this is a retailer that has already rolled out a full-on robot into the aisles of some of its stores, The LoweBot program is still in its earliest stages, but any company that starts bringing in robots ultimately will face questions about the potential threat they impose to human jobs. In recent months, in a completely separate move, Lowe's started cutting hundreds of jobs. The exosuit experiment isn't going to change that or make anyone feel better about it, but it can at least serve as a proof point that Lowe's is trying to come up with new advancements to help its human workforce make the transition to a new era.
It will be interesting to see where this all goes, as well as how much it might cost Lowe's to make larger quantities of exosuits if it decides to expand the program. Home improvement stores like Lowe's are supposed to be seeing some nice growth courtesy of a healthy housing market, so as that trend continues, the retailer may need all hands on deck — humans, robots and robot-assisted humans.