Interview with Dr. Nussbaum on Recent Applied Ergonomics Biomechanical Assessment Report

MHI and College Industry Council on Material Handling Education (CICMHE) are pleased to share research completed in part from funding by the MHI Spark Grant Program – Biomechanical assessment of two back-support exoskeletons in symmetric and asymmetric repetitive lifting with moderate postural demands. The research focused on assessing two back-support exoskeletons (BSE) under three simulated work conditions involving symmetric and asymmetric lifting. It will be published in the October 2020 edition of the Applied Ergonomics journal. The research grant was submitted by Dr. Maury A. Nussbaum. The team was comprised of researchers from Virginia Tech: Saman Madinei, Dr. Sunwook Kim, Dr. Divya Srinivasan, and Maury A. Nussbaum from the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, and Dr. Mohammad Mehdi Alemi from the Department of Mechanical Engineering (now in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery, Harvard Medical School).

MHI:  How do you see the research findings impacting industry?

Dr. Nussbaum: Exoskeletons are rapidly emerging as a new and alternative method to reduce physical demands and injury risk for workers in diverse industries.  While there is a lot of excitement about this new technology, evidence supporting their benefits and usability is still somewhat limited. The work we reported in this paper examined the efficacy of two BSEs during simulated repetitive lifting tasks. Our results highlight that BSEs have clear promise, in that using them led to important reductions in the demands on the muscles in the lower back, reduced metabolic demands and perceived exertion, and were generally perceived as helpful by the study participants. However, we also found that these benefits differ between BSE designs, task demands (i.e., postures), and genders.  Further, we found BSEs can lead to important levels of discomfort and movement constraints.  We see these findings contributing to growing evidence that will help those in industry make informed decisions about whether and how to consider adopting exoskeletons for their workforce.

MHI:  What do you want readers to take away from this research?

Dr. Nussbaum: Our work, and that of others around the world, highlights two important points that I think are relevant to those in several industries.  First, exoskeletons are not a “magic bullet”, at least not yet, in that they are unlikely to solve all problems for all workers.  Instead, specific exoskeletons are probably going to be more or less effective depending on the specific exoskeleton technology, the specific worker using this technology, and the specific task demands that are involved.  It will be some time yet before we understand these issues sufficiently. Second, there are likely to be unexpected or unintended consequences of using an exoskeleton.  Such consequences are not well understood at present, nor is whether they are important or critical consequences.  However, I would reiterate the exciting potential offered by exoskeletons and strongly encourage readers to consider exploring them for their workforce.

MHI:  What further research are you working on in Ergonomics?

Dr. Nussbaum: Much of our ongoing research is examining the potential benefits and limitations of emerging technologies industry such as wearable displays and, of course, exoskeletons.  We have several current projects that are assessing exoskeletons (unfortunately on hold for now due to the pandemic).  One focus in these projects is to identify barriers and facilitators to exoskeleton adoption in diverse industry sectors (e.g., construction, healthcare, and mining).  Another focus is to contribute to practical guidelines to help facilitate the appropriate adoption of exoskeletons, and to provide feedback to exoskeleton designers and manufacturers to enhance their technologies.  We are also working to learn more about potential adverse consequences of using different exoskeletons and when such consequences might be important concerns.  One particularly exciting project (led by Dr. Srinivasan) is examining a whole-body powered exoskeleton, which provides the user to handle substantial loads, on the order of 100 pounds or more!  Augmenting a worker’s physical and cognitive capabilities is a rapidly emerging and important topic, and we are trying to guide this augmentation so that it is both safe and effective.

The MHI Spark Grant program was awarded by MHI and CICMHE to fund research with potential high impact to the material handling, logistics, and supply chain community.