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Lowe’s Creates a Robotic Exosuit To Help Employees Stock Products

GinaMarie headshotWords by Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Data & Technology
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https://youtu.be/zpLU04A9ySQ

Lifting and moving products through a store is not an easy job, and it can wind up leaving employees with very sore muscles. Home improvement giant Lowe’s decided to do something about its employees' achy backs. 

The company teamed up with researchers at Virginia Tech to create a robotic exosuit with lift-assist technology to help employees move heavy items around the store or warehouse. The purpose of the exosuit is to help employees lift heavy objects and prevent the muscle fatigue that often comes from doing repetitive motions.

Lowe’s Innovation Labs worked with Dr. Alan Alan Asbeck, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and a team of eight graduate and undergraduate students from Virginia Tech’s Assistive Robotics Laboratory to build the suit. 

Researchers spoke with employees to learn about their jobs, routines and movements. After months of testing in a lab, Lowe’s and Virginia Tech designed and developed a light-weight wearable exosuit prototype that makes lifting heavy products easier.

The suit absorbs energy and delivers it back to the employees, allowing them to exert less force when doing certain movements. Carbon fiber in the exosuit’s legs and back help them get back up easier when they bend and stand. So, lifting something like a five-gallon bucket of paint will feel much lighter.

The exosuit is in pilot at a Lowe’s store in Christiansburg, Virginia. Lowe’s Innovation Lab and Virginia Tech will get feedback from employees about the suit over the next few months to see how it can be improved.

“Our employees ensure our stores are always ready for customers,” Kyle Nel, executive director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs, said in a statement. “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.”
Human-assistive devices “have become an area of interest” for Virginia Tech in recent years, Asbeck said. The technology he helped develop is “different” for several reasons. The exosuit has “soft, flexible elements,” and it is in a “real-world environment for an extended period of time.” The first four exosuits are being used by the Christiansburg store’s stocking team.

The exosuit is not the only thing that Lowe’s Innovation Labs has helped develop. Last year, Lowe’s introduced LoweBot, a NAVii autonomous retail service robot, in its San Francisco Bay area stores.

LoweBot helps customers find products in multiple languages and navigate through the store. It's beneficial for employees, as it takes care of simple customer questions and frees up human staffers for more complicated queries. The bot can also help with inventory monitoring in real time.

Before LoweBot there was OSHbot, retail service robots installed in the midtown San Jose Orchard Supply Hardware store. OSHbot greeted customers as they entered the store and allowed customers to tell it what they were looking to find or scan an item, and guided customers to the product they were looking for. It also helped employees with inventory scanner. The OSHbot pilot closed in 2016 as the program rolled into Lowe’s.

Lowe’s Innovation Labs also created the first Holoroom proof-of-concept a few years back that used augmented reality technology. Its team is now working on a pilot project that uses augmented reality to change a customer’s shopping experience. An app called Lowe’s Vision: In-Store Navigation allows any Tango-enabled device to give a customer turn-by-turn digital directions that appear before them. It is being piloted in two stores in Sunnyvale, California, and Lynwood, Washington. Customers who do not have a Tango-enabled device can use the application with an employee during the pilot.

Image credit: Lowe’s

Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshotGina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

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