Richard Jacobs: Hello. This is Richard Jacobs with the future tech and future tech health podcast. I have Joseph Zawaideh. He’s the head of a company called Levitate. We’re talking about upper body exoskeletons for active professionals and the trade workers. Sounds super interesting. So Joe, thanks for coming.
Joseph Zawaideh: Thank you for having me.
Richard Jacobs: If you would tell me how did you ever come to this concept? What’s a little bit of your background and history?
Joseph Zawaideh: Yes, of course. I and my business partner are the two co-founders of the company. We both come from the medical device in the street for basically all of our careers. And in a prior venture my business partner Mark Doyle, he’s the CEO of our company and he is a serial inventor. And his previous invention was surgical instrumentation for the operating room for surgeons. And as he was developing that, he noticed an extensive amount of fatigue and excessive musculoskeletal loads on surgeons in the operating room and they couldn’t do anything about it. So he realized that the only solution for this is a wearable upper-body exoskeleton to help the surgeons. And that’s where he conceived of the idea. He built the prototype.
Richard Jacobs: Well, quick question, what do you mean loads on like if someone’s doing surgery, is it because they have to extend their upper part of them over the table and it hurts their lower back? Or like what kind of problems do surgeons have that they require an exoskeleton?
Joseph Zawaideh: If you look at the way surgeons operate for laparoscopic procedures where they have a minimally invasive operation, their arms are actually extended almost at shoulder level and maybe slightly below shoulder level. And they’re holding onto these instruments and manipulating them for hours at a time. It’s actually abduction of their arms over the patient for hours. And that’s where the fatigue happens in their shoulder, their neck, and their back.
Richard Jacobs: Alright. Makes sense.
Joseph Zawaideh: So it’s almost like an assembly environment, but here you’re working with patients. So it was invented for that purpose. And as we raised a lot of private financing for the company and as we started to promote our website, a large manufacturing company found out about us and decided to trial our prototype. So companies like BMW and Toyota and John Deere and aerospace companies, heavy machinery automotive and they really loved the product for the industrial factory worker. And we started to quickly receive purchase orders for the technology. So we invested heavily in manufacturing and we switched our focus to manufacturing and marketing the product for the industrial workers and assembly, painting, welding, material handling, maintenance operations, and fulfillment centers is a new area that we’re looking at and construction. So we actually spun off the surgical exoskeleton as a separate company and levitate is strictly laser-focused on the fact that we walk them.
Richard Jacobs: Okay. So what kind of things happen to workers in factories where they would need the, an exoskeleton?
Joseph Zawaideh: So if you imagine a person for years does work at shoulder level or overhead work in assembling the underbodies of cars, a lot of the car manufacturing process is robotized, but there are processes that you can never use a robot for and those are still being assembled by human beings. So they spend at least a quarter to half of their day with their arms over their head, assembling heat shields or whatever the case may be. Other tasks, if you imagine painting a large airplane, those are done with manual painters. So they are on these lists and they have to paint the surface of an entire airplane with their arm at shoulder level or even above shoulder level. And that’s all they do. So after years of doing this, their arms start to get fatigued. The inflammation in their shoulder muscle and their neck and their lower back, well beyond what is an ergonomically friendly zone. So they are excessively inflaming these musculoskeletal joints to the point that they start to get strained and they start to feel the pain and the soreness when they go home. So it’s very hard to make every single job in the ergonomic green zone, we call it so that they don’t go above a recommended threshold of muscle activity. They’re forced to be in that red zone due to the nature of the job and that’s where the airframe exoskeleton comes in. When you cannot engineer the workstation to keep it in the green ergonomic zone you have no choice left but to have the worker in the red ergonomic zone. The airframe because it’s body-worn, does not interfere in the workspace provides a gentle helping hands when you need it and gets out of your way when you don’t need it takes that red ergonomic zone and makes it green and that’s the benefit that it provides for the factory workers.
Richard Jacobs: What does it look like? Is it a whole complete an exoskeleton or is it just like part of an arm assist or what does it look like?
Joseph Zawaideh: In front of the user there’s really nothing except a strap that goes down, from the shoulder down to the belt that we have on it. He’s got a belt with buckles. You’ve got straps that go down the front of the body and then all the support and counterbalancing mechanisms are behind the user. So on the side of the arm there is what we call a cartridge or cassette and it is on the outside of the arm so on the outside of the bicep and I should tell him outside of the triceps and then it has strings, pulleys and cable mechanism there. And then there’s an armrest, it’s like an arm cup that is right above the elbow. So it’s almost like somebody puts their hand right above the elbow to help hold up that arm and takes the hand out of the way when you don’t need that support. Then there is a rigid spine that goes down the back of the user and that is where the loads go. So you offload the arm, shoulder and back, take that load down, this widget spine down the back and then goes to these belts struts that grabbed that load and transferred out to the outside of the hips. So you’ve got hip pads there too. You’ve got hip pads and arm cups and the mechanical mechanism that is behind the body. It is a very low profile. It has nothing in front of the user because that’s where the workstation is. So we don’t want to interfere with that space. And it takes that load down to the outside of the hips while also allowing for a full range of motion up and down, left to right for the arms. So it doesn’t interfere with the workspace. And just if you can imagine having to change, say 50 light bulbs in the roll overhead and after the 10th one you’re going to start to get that fatigue in your shoulder and that aching and somebody comes in with a helping hand, right above the elbow when you were changing that light bulb overhead and gives you kind of a shelf for your arm. And then when you lower your arm, they get their hand out of the way and that way you get the help when you need it and it disappears when you don’t need it. That’s what the exoskeleton does in a mechanical way with no tethering, with no battery, with no software, with no power. It’s a very simple and elegant mechanical system and very lightweight.
Richard Jacobs: How was it powered then if it has no power?
Joseph Zawaideh: We store the energy using springs basically. So there’s a spring mechanism on the outside of that cartridge. Mechanical stored energy that you activate when you raise your arm and that you deactivate when you lower your arm.
Richard Jacobs: So energy essentially taken from the user in little bits and stored capacitively somehow?
Joseph Zawaideh: The energy is stored inside this cartridge. So when your arm is lowered by your side, the springs are storing the energy. They’re extended. But they are disadvantaged because of a cam technology that we have, just like a vole cam where you pull on that ball all the way back and the force almost goes away because of the cam system. So when your arms down by your side, there’s storage energy of an extended spring and a regular extension spring there is a disadvantage with the cam. When you raise your arm, the cam the disadvantage goes away and you feel the support of the spring as you raise your arm.
Richard Jacobs: Does this fatigue the user any more than normal?
Joseph Zawaideh: Definitely not.
Richard Jacobs: It would take a little bit of energy from them, but not much.
Joseph Zawaideh: What happens is when you raise your arm index and the spring mechanism is advantaged and you feel the support, the way we calibrate the system, the way we optimize its fit for the user is we make sure that the gravity by itself off their arm, lowers their arm back down. So you don’t have to exert force to push to the mechanism and push your arm down to your side. Let gravity do that by itself. And then when you raise your arm, yes, of course, you’re going to have some energy exerted through your arm, but as soon as you reach the 30-degree level, the spring mechanism kicks in and you feel that support. And this was actually truly done by John Deere and by Toyota and Toyota actually put eight muscle sensors, wireless muscle sensors on the shoulder, bicep, back, and neck on both sides of the body and scientifically with the help of Iowa state’s university, we’re collecting about 10,000 muscle activity data points per second from all these sensors. And they compared the muscle activity with and without our exoskeleton. They wanted to make sure that we are not adding exertion to the user. We’re only reducing the muscle exertion and they wanted to make sure that we’re not taking the load off the shoulder and taking it all to the lower back. So they proved for all these muscle activities that there were a 20 to 30% muscle exertion reduction and all these muscle groups that I named. And that is when they were convinced that we are not adding walks to the user. We are only reducing the load. And they also proved that they’re taking it from the red ergonomic zone. This can lead to springs and injury to the green ergonomic zone. So overall, because we’re taking an overload of the outside of the body, we are not increasing any muscle exertion by the user. We are only reducing it.
Richard Jacobs: Well and even if you’re taking a little bit of energy from the user, but giving them back a lot more I’m sure that would be acceptable. So what’s the feedback from users? Numbers say something, but what is the user experience?
Joseph Zawaideh: They are truly appreciating the technology. They are aware that they’re wearing out their bodies and when we give them technology like this, they absolutely appreciate the benefit it’s provided to them. Initially of course when you ask somebody to put on an aluminum frame that goes down the back, they’re going to be resistant to the idea because they’re not used to something like that. But once they actually get used to the system and let it do its job and it’s optimized for their body size and their arm size and the type of work that they’re doing, they are extremely appreciative. We’ve had people that said they no longer feel the strains and pain at the end of the day. They go home and they don’t feel sore at home. We’ve had a user that tells he feels like he can now retire healthy because of the technology. A lot of these people that are in the assembly world, painting world, welders, they do it for a living, they retire unfortunately with musculoskeletal disorders. That’s just the nature of the type of work that they do, so they are very appreciative and they don’t want to give the device back. Once they try it.
Richard Jacobs: Well again, what have they noticed specifically? Any comments from them like, Ooh, I feel less tired or like what are some specific comments?
Joseph Zawaideh: The response to the ergonomic support the device provides is quite immediate. You will quickly realize that you’re getting this very comfortable support for your arm. Their feedback specifically has been that at the end of the day, if they were to rate the muscle fatigue and aching in their shoulder, for example, from one to 10 they would say that every day I go home with fatigue level of seven out of 10 or aching of six or seven out of 10, 10 being the absolute worst. When they wear the airframe and they do their same job at the end of the day, they feel the fatigue level to be a two out of 10 or 3 out of 10. That’s the difference that technology provides.
Richard Jacobs: It’s amazing.
Joseph Zawaideh: It really is amazing. It’s a great invention and that is why we’re getting tremendous reception to it. To the point that Toyota realized, Toyota motor manufacturing made its corporate policy that exoskeletons for certain jobs that are in the red zone, the airframe exoskeleton is a mandatory PPE, personal protective equipment, just like safety glasses basically. It’s making a very big difference for these workers that are exposed to this tough job environments.
Richard Jacobs: Oh, that’s great. I was going to joke and say to my wife if I should get an exoskeleton for the kids.
Joseph Zawaideh: We get those comments a lot and they are actually valid. I have used our airframe to carry my baby when she was younger. So it’s very versatile. There are so many different jobs that can benefit from this. We are obviously focused on the industrial application, but yeah, a consumer version is in the future. Without a doubt. We strongly believe there are a lot of people, whether it’s a shoulder injury, whether it’s somebody that loves to do gardening, but they’re an elderly person, hobbies, all kinds of bird watching. Just Google bird watching and shoulder pain and you’ll find it right away. So it is a consumer version friendly technology, not just for the professional welder and one of those days it will be in big box stores like Home Depot. It is kind of humorous to say what about this job or that job, but it actually is the case down the line. This is the first generation of airframes and much more to come down the line.
Richard Jacobs: It’s interesting. You might think it’s silly, but consider a coffee shop or a factory or something like that. I wonder the owner of the factory gets this for all their workers and they are required to wear it if they would reduce their insurance premiums in there, no injuries at work and all the other stuff, they could be a big play in that arena. Again, companies that use it, they’re getting insurance rates and all that because it was use accident.
Joseph Zawaideh: That is a great insight Richard and we are definitely seeing that already. We’re seeing it in a couple of ways. Let me give you an example, if you have to build a warehouse as a construction company, a large fulfillment center, say for Amazon, it’s a million square foot facility as an example, a new house to install 30,000 sprinkler heads and then one of your installers, tears his rotator cuff muscle, they have to go get surgery. They were going to be out of the job for six months and worker’s comp has to pay them 66% of their salary while they’re staying at home and whoever replaces them has to get paid of course. And they may not even be the ideal person because they’re not as good as the guy who injured his shoulder. So that insurance premium goes up. The insurance companies staying that extra salary, if that all can be avoided. Most absolutely certain that they would buy the airframe to avoid an increase in insurance premiums. We currently have workers’ comp providers asking us for the airframe and offering it to their clients. We’re also starting to see a worker’s comp claim going down after the implementation of the exoskeleton. So you make a great point. And we’re already seeing it because we have been on the market for over two years now and this type of evidence is starting to appear. So that is a great point and it is already the case.
Richard Jacobs: Well, very good. We’ll do the last question I’m going to ask you, what about if police use this would it be used in good or bad ways? You know how technology can be good or bad but have you had any interests from unusual places, police or again, unexpected places?
Joseph Zawaideh: We have not. No. We had we do have a lot of interest from the military but mostly it’s for maintenance operations and shipyards and Air force bases, et cetera, but unusual requests we have not. No.
Richard Jacobs: Okay. Very good. Joe, well what’s the best way for people to get in touch and ask questions and all that?
Joseph Zawaideh: My email or my phone. I’m available at any time. Are you saying regarding this podcast or to the company itself?
Richard Jacobs: What I was asking you is for people listening, how’s the best way for them to get in touch if they’re interested in learning about the exoskeleton, getting it for their company, et cetera. What’s a good call to action for them?
Joseph Zawaideh: Yes. I would say our website is an excellent resource for information on the technology and that is levitate as in levitation, L, E V, I T A T E followed by tech, T E C H, all one-word levitatetech.com or they can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Richard Jacobs: That’s great. Well, Jeff, this is super cool. I just want to thank you for coming and I really appreciate it.
Joseph Zawaideh: Absolutely. Thank you for your time and it’s a pleasure for us and would love to do a more of these as we develop more problems.
Richard Jacobs: Excellent.