Norfolk Naval Shipyard puts exoskeleton suits to work

Written by Nick Blenkey
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Norfolk Naval Shipyard (NNSY) says it has become a champion in utilizing innovative exoskeleton suit technology.

The Robotics Subcommittee (RSC), a section of the NNSY Technology and Innovation Community of Practice (T&I COP), has been researching the innovative technology for years, determining what would best be able to improve the health, safety, and efficiency of the shipyard worker.

Together with safety representatives, the team has purchased and introduced the shipyard to the Levitate Airframe exoskeleton suit. This flexible power suit or limb accessory technology is able to reduce force on important joints in the body and make it easier for the user to be versatile and safe while lifting, lowering, or performing extensive labor.

The suit is lightweight and once an employee is trained to utilize it, they can fit themselves and get to work in less than a minute.

“Our team with the RSC is determined to find the most promising technology that could make a huge impact on our workers who put in the time and energy on a daily basis,” said RSC Lead Edwin Guerra. “Our main focus in the T&I COP is to improve the health and safety of our waterfront workers and increase their quality of life. They are doing the day-to-day operations and straining their bodies to get the job done. But with technologies like the exoskeleton suit, we are able to certify and fit our workforce with something that can reduce the risk of injury and also be comfortable to use.”

During a recent Temporary Facilities and Tool Control Safety Committee meeting, Guerra and Ergonomics Program Manager James Musgrove provided a demonstration of the ease of use of the exoskeleton and provided examples of how the suits could be used in daily operations.

“Our team has put in the legwork to test out these suits and get them certified for shipyard use,” said Musgrove. “We do these demonstrations and briefs to bring it directly to [shipyard departments] we think would best benefit from them. Each interested user would need to be briefed and complete the training provided by the Production Training Division. We work with them to know how to put on the suit, how it works, and in time we want these suits to be used widespread across the waterfront. It’s a tool that we want to ensure everyone knows is out there and available to them.”

“We also listen to the feedback from the workforce which tests the suits during these demonstrations,” said Guerra. “Are there versions that are non-conductive for electricians to use? Are they flame resistant for welders? We take the feedback given and we look towards what options we have with the technology so we can get them into their hands to see if it works for them. We want to do everything with the worker in mind.”

Tool Control Manager James Panikowsky said, “Right now we only have four suits and we’re going to be checking them out for a 30-day period. We want our people to get briefed and trained to use this technology. It’s a tool that could truly make the difference in their day-to-day operations.”

Guerra added, “It comes down to participation in utilizing what technologies we have available. We are leading the charge at NNSY in exoskeleton suit technology for the command and being able to show Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) that this technology is able to improve our shipyard as a whole and the demand is there, we can see more and more technologies similar to it coming through the gates for us to utilize. This is a huge win for the shipyard and we want to keep that momentum going. We saw a need to help our workers on the job and we were able to take the steps to make changes happen. That’s what innovation is all about: bringing change for the better.”

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