How Exoskeletons Are Strengthening Japan's Workforce

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An exoskeleton suit or device helps workers lift and carry objects more easily and with less risk of injury. (Photo: MONOPOLY919/Shutterstock)

An aging population with fewer young people is an issue many countries will be dealing with in the coming decades, but Japan has already reached this milestone. About 26 percent of Japan's population is over the age of 65.

Much has been written about the negative consequences of these changing demographics, but some of the reasons behind the change — far fewer teenage pregnancies, and people actively choosing the number of kids that works for them (which might be none at all) — are positive.

So maybe we simply need to get creative and figure out how to meet the challenges of an aging population. Any major population shift will create opportunities as well as difficulties. One of them could be that older people will work longer — something that many older people want anyway, especially as people remain healthier for longer. In Japan, the current age for retirement is 60, but there's a proposal to raise it to 70, to make up for the labor shortfall.

Working longer when doing sedentary work might not be a big deal for many people, but what about manual labor? A new, creative solution for older workers is a tech fix that can make physical labor a lot easier.

Exoskeletons, worn like a backpack, can help people lift weight more easily, by taking some of the strain of lifting from the back and distributing it more evenly, as well as actually assisting with the lift. Just as animals with exoskeletons are able to lift many times their body weight (think of ants), distributing weight externally can help humans do the same.

Innophys is just one of the companies that makes these devices, and it offers four different styles. The lightest one, the Edge, helps lift up to 56 pounds. Some styles use a manual (hand-pumped) compressed air function that works as additional lifting "muscle" while other models just make lifting easier with structural support.

"One client is a family-owned company which makes and sells pickled radish and uses heavyweights in the process of production," Daigo Orihara, a spokesperson for Innophys, told New Scientist magazine. "The father is in his 70s and was supposed to retire but is still working with our muscle suit."

These devices aren't cheap — the Edge is $4,500 and other models cost more than $6,000, but that's a lot less expensive than getting an injury and/or being out of work. Of course, plenty of people are using these exoskeletons who aren't even elderly, like people who work in factories and nurses or elder-care workers who need to lift patients.