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Exoskeletons: The Bridge Between the Human Body & Robotics

Posted: March 23, 2022

Individuals from across industries are taking their mobility knowledge and applying it to the Medical Devices (MedDev) market. There are many different things that can come to mind when thinking of MedDev such as implants, surgical instruments, drug delivery and more. Exoskeletons may not be what first comes to your mind, but they probably should be, given the way experts are saying they are revolutionizing the MedDev market.

To many, exoskeletons are becoming the bridge between the human body and robots.

In nature, exoskeletons are found on animals, such as insects and crustaceans. These exoskeletons support and protect the animal’s body from the outside with an exterior shell. In MedDev, exoskeletons are wearable robotics that provide mobility to those who are physically disabled or recovering from injury. Robots have evolved to do many humanlike tasks and help with manufacturing processes across industries. Exoskeletons blur the lines between flesh and tech, causing a disconnect between where the human body ends and where artificial begins.

While growing in scale, the exoskeleton market isn’t getting nearly the attention it deserves, according to Eliana Fu, Ph.D., industry manager: aerospace & medical at Trumpf USA. Up to this point, the focus had been on the other aspects of MedDev. It is time for us to turn our attention to exoskeletons and emphasize the benefits they provide to humans in various industries, experts say.

“Exoskeletons are changing people’s way of life now. For people that have limited mobility or recovering from a damaged muscle tissue, or damaged a bone, and things like that, exoskeletons provide locomotion,” Fu said. “They can reduce the amount of battlefield industry, industrial accidents, and things like that.”

An exoskeleton can have multiple uses across different industries. For instance, exoskeletons can be an application in industrial, emergency response, consumer, military, and medical sectors. Across these industries, the exoskeleton serves the common goal -- helping people.

The idea of exoskeletons has transformed over time. Originating as a Sci-Fi dream, exoskeletons have advanced into a scientific fact.

“If you have the technology, the know-how, and the desire to make things that go inside the body, you can also make those things that go outside the body,” Fu said. “The exoskeleton almost becomes a wearable device.”

The exoskeleton can utilize advanced manufacturing technologies such as electronic sensors in the brain, stent and tube cutting, wearable monitors, 3D printed metallic implants, and more. Take into consideration how all these technologies are currently used in MedDev. Applying these advanced manufacturing techniques is critical to the success and efficiency of exoskeleton manufacturing, particularly in the MedDev industry.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a supply chain crisis, with all types of delays across every industry. At the peak of the pandemic, the demand for ventilator parts, masks, face shields, etc. had skyrocketed. These essential instruments were not being manufactured and delivered to the MedDev market fast enough to keep up with this demand. During these difficult times 3D printing became one of the solutions to the supply chain crisis. With this problem still ongoing, the question is – what uses can 3D printing provide the manufacturing of exoskeletons?

“By using 3D printing to mimic muscle tissue, you can build the exoskeleton around that and then quickly evolve the designs to improve that mobility,”  Fu said. “You can imagine that this is a great tech transfer know-how for the medical. It can be patient-specific and mimic actual human body tissue.”

As we tailor these medical devices for medical purposes, the question becomes how to integrate exoskeletons into smart manufacturing. As we look to the future many people are looking to how we will do less hands-on manufacturing with the use of artificial intelligence. The exoskeleton has got to be a part of that by bringing the human and the robot together.

Take a deeper dive into the realm of exoskeletons by watching Eliana Fu’s full session from MedDev 2022.

Click here to view all on-demand content for MedDev 2022.