On November 7, Dana Ellis of NCMS West Coast Operations presented at the 2013 Annual Meeting & Expo of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, held in Bellevue, WA. Ellis’ presence at this symposium was at the request of Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock, due to NCMS’ strong participation in the iHAS (Industrial Human Augmentation System) project.
Building, maintaining and repairing Navy and other DoD assets requires shipyard and other industrial workers to perform rigorous and exhausting tasks. Many industrial workers must manipulate heavy power tools in tiresome and uncomfortable positions all day, which repeatedly fatigues their muscles. This repeated fatigue leads to many breaks, while increasing the chance of injury. This causes the Navy to lose millions of dollars annually from lost productivity, injuries and workman’s compensation costs.
Recently, human augmentation has become a major focus for the DoD. A diverse team led by the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division (NSWCCD) has demonstrated and matured exoskeleton based prototype human augmentation systems for industrial tool holding applications. By combining a prototype exoskeletal lower extremity and a commercially available exoskeletal arm that holds heavy tools, the Industrial Human Augmentation System (iHAS) was created. The iHAS removes the heavy tool load from the worker and transfers the load through the system directly to the ground. This allows industrial workers to expend a minimal amount of exertion to perform tasks that are normally very stressful on the human body, leading to reduced worker fatigue, strain and injuries while improving productivity and quality.
Since 2010, a multi-organizational team including the Office of Secretary of Defense (OSD), Department of Defense (DoD), Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division (NSWCCD), Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility (PSNS&IMF), National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS), U.S. Army, Equipois, Inc and Lockheed Martin have been maturing and testing a mobile, industrial, tool holder called the industrial Human Augmentation System (iHAS). The iHAS can provide a noticeable reduction in the Total Ownership Costs of DoD assets.
In 2011, the initial prototype was demonstrated on production work at PSNS&IMF and Newport News Shipbuilding. The prototype was comprised of the Army funded Human Universal Load Carrier, or HULC, from Lockheed Martin and a zeroG arm. The HULC is a $250,000 battery powered and hydraulically actuated exoskeleton. At the demonstrations, some shipyard personnel estimated that a 5 to 1 increase in productivity may be possible for augmented versus manual grinding. There was a noticeable improvement in quality, and a large reduction in strain and fatigue was reported. In addition, one worker had a musculoskeletal disease and could no longer hold a grinder; however, the iHAS enabled the worker to rather easily perform overhead grinding operations. These preliminary results were extremely promising, leading the team to pursue an iHAS design optimized specifically for industrial tool holding applications.
The iHAS in many ways met or exceeded initial expectations in terms of both productivity and ergonomic benefits for the first performance field test of a prototype, integrated, industrial exoskeleton system. Several conclusions are apparent during based on this assessment:
- iHAS demonstrated a positive impact on individual worker productivity.
- -iHAS showed the potential to further improve operations by reducing the required physical strength and stamina, and minimizing pain and fatigue, thereby increasing the field of workers capable of performing the heat induction process.
- -iHAS reduced operator pain and fatigue, mitigating the long-term risk of injury, and minimizing the associated costs and liabilities of injuring workers (loss of trained and skilled workers, training new workers, reassigning and retraining injured workers to alternative work, rehabilitating injured workers, etc.).
- -iHAS is extensible to a broad array of heavy-tool applications that are frequently performed in shipyards: grinding, welding, hydrolancing, etc.
- -iHAS did not add significant preparation time to the task.
- The acclimation time for the prototype iHAS is very short. Workers averaged one hour of training to arrive at a comfortable fit and proficient operation.
Efforts to date have provided sufficient incentives for the DoD to continue pursuing this technology aggressively. The DoD has drafted a development and transition plan to allow for procurement of commercial units in 2015.
The iHAS is poised to become a common place tool for many industrial settings in the very near future. The benefits of tool holding exoskeleton systems are just the tip of the human augmentation iceberg, as the iHAS will undoubtedly lead to many other industrial opportunities for human augmentation. Within both the public and private sectors, the ergonomic and financial benefits are expected to provide an extremely compelling business case to help many organizations meet their requirements.