Robotics are Helping with Neuromuscular Disease Commonly Found in Factory Workers

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When it comes to physical careers like factory work, construction, or even groundskeeping, a physical decline is often taken as just part of the job. This isn’t just a general vibe but is rooted in fact. For example, construction workers have some of the highest rates of musculoskeletal disorders per capita. Physical labor can include complex processes like digging and welding, or even simpler work like lifting boxes and parts. After a while, “lifting with your legs” isn’t enough to mitigate the stress you put on your body.

This can lead to not only physical cost to individual workers, but financial costs to the companies that employ them. However, innovation may provide a potential way to handle this issue: robotics. The tech is still in its relative infancy, but the ability to extend the lifespan of workers’ career and lower medical expenses is reason for anyone in these industries to watch.

How Does This Happen?

What exactly leads to neuromuscular issues in laborers varies. These issues affect not just the muscles, but the nerves that control your voluntary muscles. These are areas that you can control, like arms and legs. Normally, the nerve cells, called neurons, send messages that lead to control. However, if the neurons die or are unhealthy, communication wavers. This can manifest in many ways, including twitching, cramps, aches and pains, and joint and movement problems.

Sometimes, this can be even more serious, like issues with heart function and your ability to breathe. Most of the roots of these are genetic, but immune system disorders may be able to lead to this as well. The concern for factory workers stems from several past studies. These show that they have these issues at higher levels than the rest of the population. It’s speculated that toxic occupational hazards may be behind this, but nothing is confirmed.

What Does Robotics Do?

Robotics may not necessarily make a factory safer or combat genetic issues, but when it comes to the wear and tear that can potentially lead to injuries, they are a big help. The basic idea behind this is transferring the force put onto the body either away from it or to a part better equipped to handle it.

For example, an exoskeleton for lifting arms would use a series of counterweights to take the weight of things at the end of the user’s arm and translate the weight through the suit and into the ground. Another possibility is an exoskeleton transferring the weight from the shoulders and upper body to the core of the body. Where exactly things get transferred is going to depend a bit on the exact purpose of the exoskeleton and who it is used for. For example, a factory worker using this for support will be able to get by with a lighter, more comfortable exoskeleton than someone who is using it for physical therapy. For construction, some are planning to customize exoskeletons to hold certain tools.

A big hiccup in regards to getting this off the ground has been power. To put this in perspective, a human being uses about 10 watts just standing around, and 1 kilowatt working. If you’re planning on putting this into the workplace, no battery can keep this machine running for that long. As a result, therapeutic uses where this only needs to work a short while may be a bit further than these applications. However, there are several exoskeletons that use engineering to work without a battery. In a test of one such technology, a worker was able to hold a 16-pound grinder over their head for 30 minutes without issues. Unassisted, they could only hold it for 3 minutes. The ability to get so much more productivity so quickly is plenty reason for this tech to be refined and reiterated.

Robotics For Neuromuscular Disease In Review

At the moment, you’re  not likely to see these across the street at a construction site or among rank-and-file factory workers just yet. It’s also important to note that different companies are focusing on this tech in different areas. Some see it as therapeutic, some are using it for work, and there may even be potential military applications, not in combat, but in support. Tech fans are certain to want to keep posted to see how things develop, and what field these robotics hit the mainstream with first.

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