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January 1, 2012

An Innovative Robot for Manufacturing

Los Angeles-based Equipois, Inc. grabs an award for a 'weightless' mechanical arm.

GARRETT BROWN is doing for manufacturing what he already has done for Hollywood movie making. In 1972, Brown invented the Steadicam, a mechanical system that allows one person to effortlessly move and focus film cameras weighing as much as 70 pounds. Now he has invented an innovative, spring-driven mechanical arm that gives factory workers the ability to manipulate the heaviest tools, parts and materials delicately and effortlessly.

The zeroG, as the arm has been named, manufactured by a new Los Angeles-based company Equipois, Inc., captured an innovation award from The Wall Street Journal late last year, a rarity for the manufacturing sector. “Our arm is the great-grandson of the Steadicam,” says Eric Golden, CEO of Equipois.

Rather than rely on motors or hydraulics to manipulate objects all but weightlessly, the zeroG uses unique spring technology to maintain a constant force on the object it's holding. It also features a set of pivoting rings so factory workers can rotate the tool in any direction and hold it at any angle. The primary benefits to manufacturers: fewer injuries and nearly double productivity.

THE FIRST OF ITS KIND

The technology is one of the first inventions in the human augmentation category to win The Wall Street Journal's 2011 Technology Innovation Awards, judged by venture capital firms, universities and other organizations. Overall, they chose 35 winners in 16 categories.

“There's been a real gap in terms of manufacturing technology assisting workers with fine motor skills processes,” Golden says. “If they have to do something that requires finger-tip operation, there's been no help.”

In the physically demanding metals industry, gravity can test the endurance of even the most athletic employees. Until now, mechanization offered few solutions to this problem, as tools tended to degrade a metal worker's mobility or ability to make judgment calls during the production process. Fine motor skills are the only reason you want human beings, rather than robots, in production line positions, Golden says. Human backs and joints are weak, but our fine motor skills, senses and brains are often vital to intricate tasks, he says.

Brown was initially approached by Honda in 2006 to determine if the technology used by the Steadicam could be applied to tools. In 2005, Golden began a venture that sought to apply entertainment-industry technology to broader uses in society, mainly manufacturing, military and health care. Together, Brown and Equipois conceived zeroG.

Today, many of the leading companies in aerospace, heavy machinery and automotive are using the zeroG arm, including Boeing Co., Ford Motor Co., Deere and Co., Caterpillar, Inc. and General Electric Co.

“The good thing about this technology is that we're not replacing people, we're augmenting them,” Golden says. “This whole human augmentation field is just now emerging; we're fortunate to be one of the first.”