Comau’s Exoskeleton Suit Facilitates Worker Wellness at John Deere

May 04, 2023 by Seth Price

Comau has deployed its wearable exoskeleton suit, the MATE-XT, at John Deere's parts distribution center in Campinas, São Paulo, Brazil, to help workers reduce the risk of ergonomic injury.

Did you ever want to fight off the alien queen, like Ripley in Aliens? This might have been one of the first uses of a wearable exoskeleton as a plot device in a movie. While this movie was set several centuries into the future, Comau is making a wearable exoskeleton a reality today.

Operators can climb into a wearable exoskeleton, then walk, move, and lift objects, just as they would normally. The exoskeleton supports the weight, leading to fewer ergonomics injuries and reduced fatigue.


Ripley suited up for battle in Aliens (1986). Image used courtesy of GIPHY


Lifting and Work

In physics class, work is force times distance. If a person pushes against a wall, even though they are applying force, they are not doing any work as long as the wall stays stationary. Why, then, does the person get tired? As it turns out, the work being performed is the rapid contractions and extensions of the individual muscle fibers. Enough of them move a small distance repeatedly, and there is lots of work occurring.

Along these lines, a worker supporting a box with two hands may not move the box much, but it produces lots of muscle strain. They may not appear to be performing much “work,” but their muscles are working hard at the microscopic level.


worker pushes large create with force F (in Newtons) at a distance of S (in meters)

In this figure, the worker pushes the large crate with force F (in Newtons) at a distance of S (in meters). Image used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


Advantages of a Wearable Exoskeleton

Besides fighting aliens, exoskeletons can be used to move heavy objects. Instead of bringing in a team of people using forklifts or overhead cranes, an exoskeleton can do the lifting and positioning of heavy items for manufacturing, shipping, and receiving operations. Unlike cranes and forklifts, an exoskeleton takes advantage of the human body’s natural movements but provides support and extra strength to actually perform the task. Furthermore, it replaces team lifts, which rely on communication between team members, often leading to confusion and injury in a loud, industrial environment.

The exoskeleton can support the weight through mechanical advantage and proper material selection. Instead of the worker’s arm holding an object, a metal or composite bar, supported by a mechanical linkage, holds it. Because the bulk of the material is supported, the amount of force required by the contraction and extension of the muscles is reduced.

Furthermore, a properly designed exoskeleton can promote good lifting technique. The exoskeleton itself is in contact with the worker, preventing certain movements, such as lifting with one’s back or reaching too far away from the core.


Comau Mate-XT exoskeleton for workers

Rear view of the Comau MATE-XT wearable exoskeleton. Image used courtesy of Comau


Comau MATE-XT Promotes Worker Well-being

Comau developed a wearable exoskeleton that provides some mechanical advantages to workers. The MATE-XT design relies on a carbon-fiber frame that supports the worker while allowing their muscles to rest when carrying objects from one station to another. The design is simple to don and doff and adjustable to fit a wide variety of body sizes and shapes. The exoskeleton is resistant to dust, dirt, and moisture and is suitable for wearing indoors or outdoors.

To verify the concept and to measure its performance, workers at the 75,000 m2 John Deere parts distribution center in Campinas, São Paulo, Brazil, were given these exoskeletons. Workers picked, carried, packaged, and shipped numerous parts of varying sizes, weights, and awkwardness in this environment.

When wearing the MATE-XT, muscles were at the rest state 98.5% of the time versus 2.4% of the time without, marking a significant drop in muscle strain. The reduced muscle strain also led to a 30% reduction in shoulder-level muscle effort, 25% noticeably lower fatigue among workers, and other benefits. Half of the workers also showed better posture due to the increased back support.


Fighting Off Injury

While Ripley may have been able to fight an alien queen with her exoskeleton, Comau has proven that a well-designed exoskeleton can fight the threats of ergonomics injuries and beat the horrors of fatigue; they may not look scarier, but they are more common in the industrial environment.

*Featured image used courtesy of Comau