There’s more than one way to transform physical stores with technology. While Lowe’s already has LoweBot for customer assistance, the home improvement company has made moves to ensure human employees feel the benefits of tech upgrades. (Especially in their lower backs.)
The national home improvement chain partnered with Virginia Tech to develop a futuristic exosuit for its employees. An exosuit, in a nutshell, is a lightweight, wearable suit that, in this instance, assists employees in lifting and moving heavy items throughout the store.
“Our employees ensure our stores are always ready for customers,” said Kyle Nel, executive director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs. “As a way to support them, we found a unique opportunity to collaborate with Virginia Tech to develop one of the first retail applications for assistive robotic exosuits.”
The suit isn’t exactly robotic as of now — it’s more of a non-motorized exoskeleton. But this development is still pretty cool and certainly easier on the back than hauling bags of concrete unassisted.
The suit comes with a reinforced lifting arm along with additional support in the legs and back to accommodate movements involved in lifting heavy objects.
“Over the past couple years, human assistive devices have become an area of interest,” said Dr. Alan Asbeck, assistant professor at Virginia Tech and lead of the suit’s design team. “But our technology is different, not only because of the suit’s soft, flexible elements, but because we’re putting the prototype in a real world environment for an extended period of time.”
Employees wear the suits like a harness, with carbon fiber rods extending behind the legs and up the back. The rods bend when the wearer squats down to lift an item, adding additional support when they stand up with an item in hand. Heavy objects feel lighter to users as a result.
While it may sound like science fiction, it’s already science fact — and is currently under pilot testing at a Lowe’s store in Christiansburg, Va.