General Motors is helping some of its employees get a grip — literally — thanks to an intriguing technology called Ironhand. A bionic glove, it improves strength and helps reduce fatigue, which is particularly useful for assembly line workers. I got to experience this system firsthand for a few minutes at GM's tech center last week, and it's every bit as weird and wonderful as it sounds.
Ironhand consists of a few major components including a thin, stretchy glove. It's much like a mechanic's glove you'd wear while working in the garage. There's also a battery pack, some motors, a "tendon" running to each digit through a flexible conduit and pressure sensors on all the fingertips. Bulky components are housed in either a small backpack or a pouch the user wears around their waist. When you grip an object like a container or pick up a wrench, the pressure sensors determine how much force you've applied, and then Ironhand automatically helps your hand close by pulling on the appropriate cables running to each finger. The harder you grip something, the more force it applies, so it's not merely on or off, there is a range to how much assist it provides. Beyond that, users can create customized profiles via the Android-based IronConnect app.
Not surprisingly, it's a weird feeling having a glove squeeze your hand closed, mimicking the human grip. But it's easy to see how useful this technology is.
Playing around with it, I was able to pick up a box and a hammer. The harder I squeezed, the more the glove helped me grip. It can provide a surprising amount of force, enough, I think, to enable you to pound nails or move crates all day without undue fatigue. It's an unusual sensation bandying a hammer about while my hand muscles provide minimal force to keep me from dropping it.
One of the main ideas of Ironhand is to reduce the likelihood of repetitive-stress injuries. If a worker on an assembly line is using a drill to install, say, 20 bolts on every car that rolls by, their hand and trigger finger are going to get sore, probably after only a few minutes on the job. Ironhand can significantly reduce this problem.
Andrew Bigelow, senior group ergonomist at GM told me, "Currently, we are doing durability testing on the gloves at Orion Assembly." That's where the Chevrolet Sonic, Bolt EV and Cruise AV models are built, though the company has also done week-long trials at several other plants. "So far, Orion is the only facility to use the gloves on a long-term basis," Bigelow said.
Somewhat surprisingly, as useful as it is, employee opinion about the Ironhand is mixed. According to Bigelow, workers with pre-existing conditions like arthritis or cumulative trauma disorders are very accepting of this technology because it can help compensate for reduced capability. Younger team members who don't have issues with their hands are more reluctant "due to the burden of wearing a back- or hip-pack all day," he said, plus the extra time it takes to put everything on and take it off.
To develop Ironhand, GM collaborated with a Swedish company called Bioservo. The two firms had been working on related technologies, but this partnership brought everything together.
Prior to this, GM had worked with NASA to create something called the RoboGlove, which operates in essentially the same way as Ironhand. But it had issues and needed additional refinement, which is where Bioservo came in.
Mikael Wester, marketing director at Bioservo, told me, "Through a licensing agreement between GM and Bioservo Technologies AB, we have combined technology from our SEM (soft extra muscle) Glove … with the RoboGlove and developed Ironhand."
According to Wester, initial work on a hand-strengthening glove began in May of 2006 when a neurosurgeon and a mechatronics professor in Sweden joined forces. Ironhand is designed for industrial use and is supposedly the world's first soft robotic muscle strengthening system aimed at professionals. Bioservo also makes related products including Carbonhand, which is aimed at individuals with weakened grip. It launched in 2017 and is available in around 11 countries.
As for GM, it began feasibility testing of the Ironhand in early 2018. Durability evaluations began about a year later. Bigelow explained that numerous improvements and modifications have been made to the system since testing began, incorporating loads of feedback from workers.
Of course, GM is not alone in researching this sort of technology. Other companies, including automakers, are working on various bionic systems. There's a Honda device that helps you lift your arms and Hyundai has its Wearable Vest Exoskeleton, to name a couple.
Bioservo is also collaborating with other firms including Airbus, Eiffage Infrastructures and General Electric. It may not let you shoot lightning bolts from your fingertips like Emperor Palpatine, but Ironhand is pretty magical, delivering superhuman strength and increased endurance. Too bad it's aimed only at industrial applications.