A handful of Lowe's employees have a new work uniform: an exoskeleton.
The home improvement retailer is testing exoskeletons on four employees at a Christiansburg, Virginia, store to make it easier to lift objects and stock shelves. Some Lowe's (LOW) employees spend 90% of their time moving and lifting everything from bags of cement to huge buckets of paint.
Wearing the exoskeleton is somewhat similar to putting on a rock climbing harness and a backpack. The suit also includes attached carbon-fiber shafts that run down a person's back and thighs. The shafts flex and store energy as a person bends over to pick something up. When the employee stands, the rods straighten and the energy releases, making the task easier. The process is similar to how a bow releases energy when an arrow is launched.
Lowe's developed the exoskeleton in partnership with Virginia Tech engineering professor Alan Asbeck. For years, engineers have tinkered with exoskeletons and exoskeletons as a way to augment human abilities with extra mechanical powers.
Kyle Nel, executive director of Lowe's Innovation Labs, describes the suits as a way to better recruit potential employees and make their workdays easier.
"Who wouldn't want to work in a place where you get to wear an exosuit?" Nel asked.
Nearly four weeks into the three-month pilot, the response from employees has been positive, Nel said.
Lowe's has had the exosuit-wearing employees also wear a headset for a few hours of their shifts. The headset senses brain activity to determine whether they're enjoying the experience. Nel said it's a far superior way to get user feedback versus asking direct questions.
"If someone asks you how a movie was, people generally say, 'It was a good movie,'" Nel said. "But there are parts of the movie that were probably better and less good than others."
Once the pilot is complete, Lowe's will evaluate whether to expand the exoskeletons to other stores. Currently, Nel anticipates the exoskeletons only getting more useful and powerful.
"We'll add a jetpack in 2018," he joked.