The future is now: how exoskeletons are changing Canada's construction industry
'There are many, many young people that are very excited about the technology'
Encased in a metal exoskeleton, a construction worker looking like a robot wields a motorized chipper to remove tiles from a wall.
Despite the weight of the tool and its intense vibrations, the worker never tires or loses their grip.
They are a new breed of construction worker in Canada, using wearable machinery to do work faster and with less fatigue.
The hope is this technology will attract younger workers and allow older employees to stay on the job longer, which would benefit an industry facing a labour shortage.
BuildForce Canada, an organization that studies the construction industry and creates labour forecasts, said a quarter of the construction workforce is expected to retire between 2018 and 2027. It will create a demand for 42,000 workers by 2027.
The Canadian Construction Association said baby boomers are retiring and younger people aren't entering the industry.
An exoskeleton's frame eases the strain of heavy lifting or repetitive tasks. It protects a person's joints and muscles from injury.
Many in the industry say the days of workers damaging their bodies to make a buck could soon be over as exoskeletons become more common on construction sites.
Some of the suits work like a lever, using counterweights to lift objects.
The latest version is a fully powered motorized suit that can enhance a user's strength and stamina.
Many construction companies in Canada haven't tried the technology yet, let alone put it into regular use.
But a handful of companies have made the leap.
Freshco.ca is one of them. It's a construction company that builds and remodels retail spaces across Canada and the eastern United States.
It was started in Halifax and was founded by Nova Scotian Mandy Rennehan, who still runs it.
The company uses two exosuits.
"This is something that's a game-changer," said Rennehan.
"People can literally hold these chippers for maybe 10-15 minutes at a time, then they've got to rest for 15 or 20 minutes."
Rennehan can't use the devices for all the work her company does, but said they can be used for about 40 per cent of the most fatiguing jobs.
Freshco.ca's exosuits were made by Lockheed Martin. The suits can cost up to $80,000 US.
They have a single large arm to hold large power tools. The suit offsets the weight of tools, making it easier for the wearer to lift them.
Some of the tools can weigh up to 28 kilograms.
Rennehan said it could take a team of three people up to four days to chip away tiles in a washroom at a retail store. With the help of exosuits, two people can do the same work in two days "with 90 per cent less fatigue."
That means people finish their work faster and can move onto other jobs without being exhausted. It also means workers have more energy for their off hours.
The exosuits also level the playing field, making it easier for anyone to enter the construction industry, said Rennehan.
People who didn't think they had the strength to do the work, or were worried about the physical strain, are now free to participate.
She said that's especially important for women who may have thought they didn't have the strength to keep up with men at the jobsite.
Rennehan hopes it will also allow older workers to stay on the job longer.
She is so impressed by the exosuits that she plans to buy two more in the next three years.
Darryl Wiebe, president of the Alberta-based construction company Kerr Interior Systems, has high hopes for the technology as well. But he wasn't blown away by the units his company bought.
It purchased two vests. The vests, which cost $5,000 each, are connected to a set of braces that go over a worker's arms.
Workers used them for a variety of tasks including drywall installation and roofing. Wiebe said workers got some relief but the vests had some major drawbacks, too.
Range of motion was one issue and it made it difficult to wear a safety harness or tool belt.
"We're not using them at the moment," said Wiebe, "but we're waiting for the next generation to come out where they hopefully improve some of those things."
The next generation is on its way.
Sarcos Robotics of Salt Lake City has built a fully powered exoskeleton called Guardian XO. It takes all the strain off its user.
Workers step into the thick frame of the battery-powered suit and guide it with their movements.
The wearer can lift and carry up to 90 kilograms for up to eight hours. The motorized suit does all the work.
It can solve many problems at a worksite, according to Kristi Martindale, a Sarcos executive.
She said exosuits could also help solve the construction industry's labour woes by attracting a new wave of young people.
"There are many, many young people that are very excited about the technology," she said, "It's a little more exciting because of the robot, and they don't have to worry so much about how they're impacting their body long term."
The Guardian XO will be on the market at the end of this year. Sarcos will lease them for between $100,000 and $150,000 per year.
Despite the high cost, Rennehan said other construction companies need to jump on board.
"I'm really out there encouraging companies to invest in this equipment for their employees, for their bottom line and … to encourage more people to be knocking on their door wanting to be employed by them."
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