Exoskeleton Lifting Aid

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It seems that the future of the shipbuilding industry will be more automated than we originally thought. Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering is currently testing and piloting prototypes of its latest exoskeleton lifting aid – surely a landmark breakthrough for the industry?

In the oil and gas industry, and the energy industry more widely, some of the structures and pieces of equipment are vast. It goes without saying that just small parts of an oil rig weigh huge amounts and cost huge amounts. Some of the vessels used in support of the industry take years to put together and are extremely advanced; like mini floating cities, and they are used for everything – transport of LNG, shipping of oil, movement of people and many other activities.

As we discussed back in June, Shell is currently putting together its Prelude FLNG facility; a project that could have great impact on the energy industry. But consider the scale of a project like this. Standing on its end, the Prelude FLNG facility will be taller than the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. So, to put together something just half the size of this, you will need some extreme tools.

In South Korea, at its Okpo-dong yard, Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering is testing and trialling a new piece of equipment that has the potential to change the way that engineers work on these mega projects.

This new piece of equipment has got sci-fi fans excited and some are even calling it ‘the iron man suit’ for shipbuilders. Essentially, it’s an exoskeleton that can provide extra strength to an engineer and this innovation is something which has been developed over a number of years.

At Daewoo’s yards in South Korea, robots undertake much of the day-to-day heavy engineering but that could change if pilots of the exoskeleton continue to run successfully. Currently, the exoskeleton ‘suit’ can fit anyone between 160 and 185 cm tall and it is surprisingly lightweight considering its capabilities – it only weighs 28kg and is made from carbon, aluminium alloy and steel. In this, the early stages of development, the suit has managed to aid in lifting loads of up to 30kg and the prototype has a three hour battery life.

In order to actually fit the suit, engineers will first step into ‘foot pads’ and then strap their thighs, waist and chest into harnesses. This allows a good range of movement of the body while taking the strain of the weight. Electric motors and hydraulic joints power the suit from the back and so far, designers have said that it has had a positive effect on people’s ability.

Importantly, and proving that this is not just an expensive gimmick, the suit can take advantage of special attachments which make lifting even easier. For example, frames that reach up from the back and arch over the head, almost like a small crane, can be added for specialist tasks.

Lead engineer on the Daewoo exoskeleton project, Gilwhoan Chu recently told New Scientist magazine that designers had received positive feedback from recent trials and had taken on board the criticisms which included; the suit not being able to move fast enough, not being able to lift enough weight, not being safe on slippery or sloped surfaces and twisting movements being limited. “Our current research target of the lifting capacity is about 100kg,” he said.

Shipbuilding and marine engineering is huge business. Not only in the energy industry, but marine, defence, research and transport industries all require specialist services when it comes to their vessels and their offshore capabilities. Human error is no longer tolerated and this is why automation has become the norm in the world’s largest shipyards.

The world’s top three shipbuilding firms, Daewoo, Hyundai Heavy Industries and Samsung Heavy Industries are all located in South Korea so this breakthrough with exoskeleton technology could spread easily when a more marketable product is eventually developed.

And as the industry grows, so will the need for more automation and Chu is confident telling New Scientist: “We’ve been developing and applying robots and automation in shipbuilding for more than a decade.”

If everything goes to plan, and its currently looking like it will, then we could see these exoskeleton suits in action sooner than you might think and the processes and timescales involved in shipbuilding could be dramatically improved. This will mean great things for the energy industry with suppliers able to be much more flexible and much more instant in their response to requests and contract arrangements.

However, Daewoo is not the only company experimenting with exoskeleton style robotics. There are many organisations around the world that can see the benefits and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have created robotic arms that lift heavy objects, grab things out of the wearer’s reach and can be used to hold objects steady. In this case, the arms can operate independently of the wearer, completely changing the scope of what is possible from one employee.

Whatever the future holds, it looks certain that some form of exoskeleton suit will be included in order to improve efficiency and strength – both vital in the energy industry and further afield.

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