Japan's muscle suit makes light work of heavy lifting
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Friday, August 22, 2014 04:45 PM

A new generation of "muscle suits" specially designed for Japan's rising number of elderly citizens, and their care workers " is to help people live independently and self-sufficiently," said Kobayashi, a professor at Tokyo University of Science who has been perfecting the prototype device for more than a decade.

"The joints are moved by artificial muscles, so the wearer is able to move about unencumbered. There is zero risk to the wearer, even if it malfunctions."

Kobayashi's 5kg muscle suit, which goes on sale next month, is expected to be adopted first by manual and agricultural workers, who are prone to lower back pain, as well as employees at daycare and retirement homes.

As the suits become more sophisticated and affordable, Kobayashi and his collaborators at the die maker Kikuchi Seisakusho predict they will be in common use among disabled and elderly people with mobility problems, possibly by the end of this decade.

The muscle suit has earned good reviews where it has been trialled – not least from care workers who had been forced to take time off with back problems brought on by, among other tasks, lifting residents into and out of baths. "In the past when workers lifted people, they had to really exert themselves, which also had the effect of causing anxiety among the elderly people they were caring for," Kobayashi said. "The muscle suit makes lifting so much easier, and the people being cared for don't have to worry about being dropped."

Kikuchi Seisakusho's factory in Fukushima prefecture is expected to manufacture up to 200 muscle suits a month, starting this summer. Initially, the suits will be rented out for about 25,000 yen (£146) a month, with a smaller number being sold for ¥300,000-¥800,000, the firm's president, Isao Kikuchi, said.

Tokyo University of Science and Kikuchi Seisakusho are not alone in trying to develop affordable, fully functional exoskeletons. Cyberdyne, based near Tokyo, has had some success with its Hybrid Assistive Limb [HAL] robotic suit, which it rents out to hospitals and care facilities, including several in Europe. And Japan's government is offering subsidies to encourage engineers to develop even more sophisticated robotics for the medical and elderly care markets.

Source:  http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/12/japanese-muscle-suit-makes-light-work-heavy-lifting-care-workers