In Davis Mendenhall's line of work, he often finds himself in awkward positions. Unfortunately, they're the kind of positions that can lead to nerve damage, chronic pain or debilitating, career-ending injuries.
Mendenhall is a pipe welder with United Group Services in Ohio, and his awkward positions are the physical kind - leaning backward thirty feet in the air, say, or crouched under some massive industrial structure. But for the last month or so, Mendenhall's work has become significantly easier - and safer - thanks to a new workplace technology that literally takes a load off.
Mendenhall is one of many workers now testing the MAX system, a low-cost exoskeleton device that could potentially change the way millions of people work. At least, that's how Mendenhall sees it.
"It's made a big difference," he said. "I'm going to be using this for every situation I can. When I'm out doing field welds, where I'm up in the lifts, getting in different crazy positions, it really changes everything."
MAX (Modular Agile eXoskeleton) is a radical new vision for workplace bionics pioneered by Homayoon Kazerooni, founder of the robotics start-up suitX and professor of mechanical engineering at Berkeley. The company's initial line of flexible, modular exoskeleton devices - backX, legX and shoulderX - officially launched this week after years of development and testing in the field.
The MAX system is fundamentally different than other workplace exoskeletons in several ways. Unlike the massive robotic machines popularized in science fiction, the MAX modules are lightweight and versatile. You can walk unimpeded while wearing the full exoskeleton - or climb stairs, or drive a vehicle, or even ride a bike. The exoskeleton units kick in only when you need them, and they don't require any external power source.
When you're in a stressful position, the MAX system goes to work, locking in and triggering actuators that reduce the muscle force required to complete a given task. With the legX system, for instance, microprocessors on each side communicate via Bluetooth and monitor relative spacing and position. When a worker goes into a crouch, the unit stiffens, essentially providing a dynamic chair that locks in as needed.
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The modules can be worn independently or together, and can reduce muscle strain by as much as 60 percent. Those are hard numbers, too, backed up by patents, research papers and on-site evaluations conducted at construction sites, shipbuilding yards, foundries and airport baggage depots. You can check out the technical details and demo videos at the MAX project page.
All indications are that MAX is the real deal, and for Kazerooni and his team of engineers, it's the end of a long and challenging quest to bring affordable, practical bionics technology to the workplace. The suitX modules start at $3,000 - a fraction of the cost of other industrial exoskeleton systems.
"I come from a background where all my family was involved in labor-intensive work," Kazerooni said, speaking from his office at the Berkeley campus. "My job is easy. I sit in front of a computer. But these guys work all day long, put their bodies through abuse. We can use bionics to help them."
After decades of work in advanced mechanical engineering and founding other companies along the way, Kazerooni feels he has finally achieved the bionics breakthrough that can truly help people in their day-to-day work lives. SuitX, formerly U.S. Bionics, is also the home of the Phoenix, a lightweight medical-grade exoskeleton designed to aid people with mobility disorders.
"This is really coming from my heart here," he said. "I think we have an obligation to serve the community. This is my vision, to create these bionics at an accessible cost, something that you can wear all day long."
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Kazaerooni said his engineering team passed over earlier design solutions that worked well, but were too expensive. Instead, they kept working to cut costs. He hopes that the system's relatively low price point will encourage wide adoption of the technology.
"Low cost is the key issue here," he said. "Making a Honda at $15,000 is much, much harder than making a Lamborghini at $400,000. I want to make sure plant managers actually buy these devices for their workers."
The suitX technology was funded in part by a grant from the National Robotics Initiative, a federal program launched in 2011 to advance and accelerate robotic research.
"There is nothing like this in the market," he said. "We didn't create this because of science fiction movies. We were responding to numbers from the Department of Labor, which said that back, knee and shoulder injuries are the most common form of injuries among workers. I read all the statistics for years."
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Speaking of science fiction, Kazerooni has a bone to pick with the genre.
"Exoskeletons are presented, by science fiction writers and moviemakers, as these machines related to violence," he said. "It's always about fighting, running across the world in one second. But that image is hurting us. What bionics is actually doing is helping people have a better quality of life."
Still, the experience of strapping on an exoskeleton can feel a little space age, Mendenhall said, remembering his initial welding jobs with the suitX.
"When I first put it on, my body wanted to walk like a robot," he said. "I don't know, you just kind of feel like a robot with the suit on. But then once you start to move around, you hardly even notice it."
The important thing, Mendenall said, is that technology can ward off the injuries that plague his profession.
"The biggest factor in not getting hurt with welding - everyone always tell you this- is to be comfortable. This allows that to happen. I'm not complaining."
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