Can Artificial Intelligence Help with Heavy Lifting?

Man lifting box wearing StrongArm

Startup StrongArm Technologies uses wearable sensors, data analytics and machine learning to digitize workplace ergonomics, and manufacturers at GE put the injury prevention tech to the test.

Anyone lifting heavy loads risks crippling back problems. What if people could wear a smart device equipped with sensors and data analytics technologies that coaches and assists with proper lifting techniques?

So-called “ErgoSkeletons” from startup StrongArm Technologies are doing just that, and they could lead to fewer on-the-job injuries. These smart harness belts help workers maintain a safe body posture while lifting or moving heavy objects. Additional technologies allow the wearable to track a worker’s movement and provide almost real-time ergonomic data that can help workers and managers avoid injury.

The top cause of workplace injury is overexertion, which includes lifting and carrying activities, according to the National Safety Council. Nearly 13,000 U.S. employees are injured each day, illustrating the need for prevention strategies.

The V22 ErgoSkeleton tackles those challenges by transferring weight from the upper body to the legs, helping to reduce common back injuries and arm fatigue, according to Matt Norcia, chief marketing officer at StrongArm Technologies.

He said the technology reinforces proper lifting techniques so factory workers can safely lift objects and carry them comfortably for longer distances.

“It redistributes the load over your shoulders and into your core muscles, so you’re using the right muscles to perform the lifts, thus reducing risk,” Norcia said.

Spreading the Load

Workers strap on the V22 like a backpack, securing it around the waist. Additional cords extend from both shoulders of the brace, and workers attach the clutch cords to their hands.

When lifting, the clutch on the hands engages, transferring the load of the object through the cord, over the shoulders, and down through the spine and the hips. It gets people to use their full body, not just the arms and lower back.

FUSE, a wearable sensor on the ErgoSkeleton, tracks data on workers’ performance, using machine learning to help identify injury risks and help workers follow safer lifting procedures.

Real-Time Data Tracking for Optimizing Safety

“This system essentially captures, evaluates, and delivers guidance to both employers and employees on how they can avoid injuries and perform better,” Norcia said.

He said the FUSE device collects data 12.5 times a second from sensors on the ErgoSkeleton. A processor then analyzes that data and delivers real-time insights and on-body haptic feedback to each worker, helping them to lift objects safely.

The FUSE platform generates a “safety score,” which is a single risk grade that’s a weighted metric based on all the different factors that might contribute to risk in an industrial environment.

“We use that score as a baseline for improvement,” Norcia said.

“It becomes a tool for optimizing the workplace, workforce and work process with accurate data.”

Bringing Data-Based Decision Making to Ergonomics

General Electric (GE) began piloting StrongArm’s FLX and V22 systems at seven of its sites worldwide in 2016, according to Sam Murley, digital acceleration leader for GE’s Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) group.

He said GE saw it as an opportunity to try something that applied a digital solution to managing ergonomics while also easing the burden on the workforce.

He said employees using the technology conduct pick and pack operations that involve different body movements, and many perform both repetitive and highly complex tasks at GE distribution sites.

Murley refers to the FUSE platform as a data-based decision-making tool. Ergonomic data is bringing new insights about environmental health and safety for workers, facilitating and prescribing intervention to those who need it the most.

FUSE sensors docking station
Workers store StrongArm Techonologies’ FUSE sensors in a docking station. Photo courtesy of StrongArm Technologies.

“We can now use all that information to identify and make pre-informed decisions on key ergonomic areas we should be focused on,” he said. “It helps the sites selectively prioritize.”

It’s also sparking serious dialogue at GE.

“Conversations and decisions between health and safety experts at the sites and employees are now hinged on data coming from the FUSE wearable and data platform,” said Murley.

The data helps determine whether the sites need to change worker behavior or the work environment to prevent injuries, he said. Simply put, the technology raises employee awareness of safety issues. It’s provided employees with near real-time digital coaching.

Although the technology has only been used for a short time, Murley believes the real-time data could help employees and managers identify where they need to stop or intervene before an injury occurs. Plus there’s an immediate added benefit.

“Employees are more aware of their lifting behaviors when wearing the FUSE sensor,” said Murley.

Working closely with StrongArm is allowing Murley to fine tune the tech for GE’s needs.

“How can we take changing safety scores that meet certain thresholds and immediately alert the site leads?” he asked, describing how ergonomic data can be used in new ways. “How can we make this more proactive?”

Quantifiable feedback from GE field testing is helping Murley strategize with StrongArm about new features and improvements.

Innovation at New Lab

StrongArm Technologies is one of more than 90 startups at New Lab, an 84,000-square-foot former machine shop in New York City’s Brooklyn Navy Yard. New Lab provides wide-ranging resources for companies in emerging fields such as robotics and artificial intelligence (AI).

New Lab
New Lab provides resources for multiple tech startups. Photo courtesy of New Lab.

StrongArm and other New Lab members prototype in the Innovation Workshop, which is sponsored by Intel and Lenovo. It’s where New Lab members can use leading-edge technologies for AI object detection, the Internet of Things (IoT), big data, high-performance computing and even drone technologies.

By using New Lab resources to develop products like FUSE and V22, Norcia said access to these evolving technologies allows StrongArm to more quickly bring new and innovative ways to ensure the health, safety and productivity of the industrial workforce.


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