Proof is in the (Christmas) pudding

Fresh from my two-decade retrospective last month, I’ve reflected that one of the great things about working in Innovation is that you avoid working on a failing project. Or, at least, you won’t be working on it for too long.

Fast fail means that you quit at the earliest opportunity. I can recall some projects on the more dismal end of the productivity scale in my career that could have benefited from this; by comparison, an innovation trial means that you get to find out if anything is any good before going further.

Yet this approach works in reverse, too: when you start from a place where you don’t think very highly of a product, service or solution, then test it, and find that it not only exceeds your expectations but you kind of like it instead.

Your author wearing an exoskeleton designed to support shoulder movements. Not convinced at first, having a go really changed my mind.

Something our Innovation team has done over the years are to run showcases of new tech. These work particularly well in large organisations where not everyone has the time or resources (or inclination) to go out and see what the big bad world has to offer by way of new products or thinking. So we bring it to them; carefully publicised, internal themed roadshows where a small number suppliers visit to show off their wares as impartially as possible. We collect ideas from colleagues about how we can best utilise the tech at hand in our business. Invariably, this has led to trials of the tech later on.

Our team have run showcases on autonomous vehicles, mixed realities, robots, mobile devices and even digital kiosks. But one recent showcase really did change my thinking, when we invited two suppliers in – SuitX and Noonee – to demonstrate Exoskeleton technology.

Exoskeletons are mechanical devices that attach to the body to both augment and support human movement. They’re changing the way we think about manual handling and are seeing large growth in factories around the world.

The showcase debunked a few myths too, including one that I’d somehow absorbed: that all exoskeletons are powered. Indeed, the two we saw were nothing of the sort, using simple mechanics with variable rate springs, adjustable pulleys and mechanical switches to customise their fit.

The other was that they make you stronger, in much the same way we’ve seen in Aliens, where Ripley uses a Loader to move heavy cargo around. What exoskeletons really do is actively prevent you from doing the wrong thing physically. The mechanics work together to switch loading from our back to your legs, for example, or preventing you twisting when holding an item which is apparently a common cause of slipped discs.

My worry with Exoskeletons was that I couldn’t see workers rushing to put them on every day. Indeed, this was confirmed as an issue with the two suppliers. The very helpful Andy from XSuit said that this can be mitigated by proper training, and, to continue a theme, purchasing a few units for a trial first. Get people used to the kit, embed it in the organisation and then, perhaps like a car seatbelt, they can’t imagine operating a machine without it.

But my doubt still persisted until trying one. What happens after someone has completed a 12-hour day shift in one during the hottest day in August? You wouldn’t really fancy suiting up, although with various harnesses used to attach the suits, some of the resultant sweat-fest could be avoided.

Like virtually all the staff we showed, I came away impressed and my mind changed. True, there were the inevitable references to the Aliens and even Robocop films, but long after the laughter, many good postures will remain. And fewer failed projects, too.


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