Ergonomics done right.®
April 9th, 2020

Q & A with Exoskeleton Expert Maury Nussbaum

I definitely missed the WearRAcon 20 conference this year, but am grateful for the interviews I’ve had with leading researchers in the field. Today, I am highlighting Maury Nussbaum, Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering, co-Director of the Occupational Ergonomics and Biomechanics Laboratories, and Director of the Occupational Safety and Health Research Center at Virginia Tech. 

  • Q1:  What sparked your interest in wearable technology and exoskeletons?
  • A1: In May 2012, John Amell (formerly employed at Boeing) asked me to do an ergonomics assessment of a new contraption he and Alison Stephens (a former employee of Ford) were developing. The device consisted of a Steadicam vest and an Equipois tool-balancing arm. When used, they hoped it would reduce shoulder loads without overly loading the back or other body regions. They wanted the results fairly soon since their funds to support the research were limited.  I agreed to participate.  In fact, during the project we had a lot of fun and the results led to one of the first papers on occupational exoskeletons—at that time the term “exoskeleton” hadn’t been widely adopted.
  • Q2: Of all the contributions in the wearable technology and exoskeleton field, what do you feel is the most significant?
  • A2: From the perspective of occupational applications, which is my primary interest, there are two significant contributions to date: 1). There is clear and consistent evidence, from both lab- and field-based studies, that the technology can reduce physical demands on targeted body regions (shoulders or low back) and can do so without substantial unintended adverse consequences (at least so far); 2) The technology is not a magic bullet. The effectiveness of exoskeletons in the workplace will depend on a complex interaction of a specific exoskeleton, for a specific worker, doing a specific task.
  • Q3: What contribution has yet to receive the accolades it deserves?
  • A3: It’s still very early in terms of research on occupational exoskeletons, so it’s difficult to determine what contributions may have been “missed” or under-recognized by researchers and practitioners.  However, missing from the explosion of media releases and hype surrounding exoskeletons is the fact that, to my knowledge, we still don’t have evidence that using an exoskeleton can prevent a workplace injury.
  • Q4: What excites you most about the potential of wearables and exoskeletons in the workplace?
  • A4: I’m excited about exoskeletons for the same reason I’m excited about the potential for cooperative robots (co-bots) in the workplace.  Both approaches are intended to enhance, rather than replace, the human worker and reduce the risk of workplace injuries?

Read my past interviews:

  • Dr. Thomas Sugar got interested in the field when he started developing systems for stroke rehabilitation.
  • Dr. Daniel Ferris was inspired by reading comic books as a kid, specifically when Iron Man and Dr. Doom matched their robotic exoskeletons against each other.
  • Dr. Karl Zelik  used to test the limits of the human body as a kid. Unfortunately, he ended up with broken bones and quite a few stitches. When he discovered biomechanics as an adult, he was hooked.