Robots, exosuits, wearable posture sensors and AI-powered ergonomics were all featured tech at the first Safety Innovation Challenge held Sept. 22 at the San Diego Convention Center. The event was put on by the National Safety Council (NSC) MSD Solutions Lab in collaboration with Safetytech Accelerator.
The MSD Solutions Lab is a NSC program started in 2021 with Amazon to seek out ways to prevent musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) in the workplace. MSDs are the most common workplace injury and represent the leading cause of worker disability, involuntary retirement and limitations to gainful employment. These injuries include tendinitis, back strains and sprains, as well as carpal tunnel syndrome, and are often caused by exposures to repetitive, forceful exertions like heavy lifting.
“Innovation is a key element of what we call the Amazon Safety flywheel, with technology being a cornerstone of our safety programs,” said Heather MacDougall, vice president of Worldwide Workplace Health and Safety at Amazon. “We are honored to support the Safety Innovation Challenge to drive meaningful MSD innovations, and we look forward to identifying and learning about new solutions to common safety issues facing employers across the industry.”
Safetytech Accelerator initially sourced over 100 technology companies with MSD solutions ranging from vision analytics, collaborative robots, wearables and exoskeletons, and selected six finalists with NSC for the Safety Innovation Challenge. Each finalist presented a unique approach to detecting, moving and transporting objects more safely in industrial workplaces. Following the challenge, several of these technology solutions will be piloted by leading employers.
Among the finalists was Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR), a Denmark-based company with a West Coast sales, training and demonstration facility in San Diego. MiR makes collaborative robots designed specifically for moving and lifting heavy items throughout a facility while avoiding collisions with people or objects.
“MiR was delighted to participate in the Safety Innovation Challenge and present our automated mobile robot technology to highlight the impact of MSDs in the workplace,” said Bryan Kelly, sales director of MiR Robotics. “It is our hope to educate people on how to make the manufacturing and warehouse environment safer.”
MiR’s robots come in four models – the 100, 250, 600 and 1350 – each named for the number of kilograms they can carry. MiR has deployed its robots in automotive manufacturing facilities, warehouses and even hospitals.
“Pretty much any application where you’re needing to move a pallet, a cart or any heavy items autonomously,” said Brian Covington, California sales engineer of In-Position Technologies, an MiR distributor.
One area of the economy MiR is hoping publicized events like the Safety Challenge will open up for the company is startups.
“Safety is not always at the forefront of the conversation when starting up a company. So being able to collaborate with NSC’s MSD Solutions Lab gives people that reminder that safety is an important factor of an existing operation and a new operation,” Covington said. “Being here gives us an opportunity to give people a visual connection by seeing the robot on stage, especially to connect the robot with its potential in real world application to not only perform tasks and move things around but tie into the safety aspect of a facility as well.”
In addition to MiR, the inaugural Safety Innovation Challenge participants included:
- Effidence: EffiBOT, the autonomous mobile robot pioneered by Effidence, is designed to improve logistics performance in factories and warehouses by serving as an automated handling assistant. In addition to helping workers lift heavy materials, the collaborative robot is equipped with a leading navigation system to transport items across various workstations.
- Extend Robotics: The London-based company couples advanced robotics and virtual reality to provide organizations with a revolutionary approach to workplace automation: teleoperated commercial robots. In addition to removing employees from potentially hazardous situations, the intuitive, easy-to-operate technology enables employers to scale operations more efficiently.
- HeroWear: Created in 2018, HeroWear’s battery-free Apex Exosuit is uniquely designed to address the many limitations employers and workers report with traditional exoskeletons, which are an MSD solution for many employers. In addition to being lightweight for workers and affordable for businesses of all sizes, the company is one of the first to offer exosuits in women’s sizes.
- TuMeke Ergonomics: This company offers an omnichannel platform that leverages computer vision and artificial intelligence to evaluate workers’ posture and joint positions while tracking their ergonomic risk factors over time, providing employers with a more organized, comprehensive risk assessment.
- WearKinetic: WearKinetic is a wearable motion sensor designed to detect improper bending, overreaching and twisting. In addition to delivering haptic feedback to workers to prevent hazardous movements, the tool aggregates company-wide data to help employers make more informed safety decisions.
“We have been truly impressed by the range and quality of solutions that entrepreneurs all around the world are developing to help prevent MSDs,” said Dr. Maurizio Pilu, managing director of Safetytech Accelerator. “The selection of the six candidates to participate in the challenge was not easy given the pool of great solutions we saw, but we believe that the companies selected represent some of the best examples of technology-enabled MSD prevention out there.”
The Safety Innovation Challenge is one of several initiatives launching this year by the MSD Solutions Lab to achieve its goal of preventing MSDs before they start. A comprehensive research initiative will look at case studies, reports, systematic reviews and meta-analyses of MSD in the workplace and the findings will be made available to all industries. Another initiative will provide grant money to small business, academic institutions and university students to fund solutions for companies of all sizes to reduce ergonomic risks.
“Global collaboration and innovative thinking are the pillars on which the MSD Solutions Lab is built, and the inaugural Safety Innovation Challenge is an important step forward in our effort to eliminate these debilitating injuries,” said Paul Vincent, NSC executive vice president of workplace practice. “Ultimately, our goal is more than just pioneering research and amplifying next-generation safety solutions, it’s all about ensuring advancements in MSD prevention are rapidly scaled to benefit workers at all workplaces, so they can live their fullest lives on and off the clock.”
To learn more about these efforts, visit nsc.org/msd
Mobile Industrial Robots
CEO: Søren E. Nielsen
Headquarters: Odense, Denmark
Business: Manufacturer of industrial use robots
Stock: MiR is a subsidiary of Teradyne, Inc. (NASDAQ: TER)
Revenue: MiR $64 million (2021)
Employees: 204 worldwide, 4 San Diego
Notable: MiR’s founder, Niels Jul Jacobsen, created the first example of what would one day become a MiR robot using his son’s LEGO bricks.