The human body is a miracle of engineering, but it has its limits. One are of research for wearable Health Tech is to find ways to augment a body’s natural abilities to help a person do more with less risk of injury. Exoskeletons are particularly intriguing, as they can even help paralyzed people walk independently. It turns out that these may have their largest application in commercial and industrial settings, however, helping workers avoid expensive injuries while on the job.

The “big box” home improvement chain Lowes is working on its own solution to this problem. The company has its own research “skunk works” for disruptive technology projects: Lowe’s Innovation Labs. This group has collaborated with students at Virginia Tech to create a novel “exosuit” for their workers. The company’s employees have to a lot of lifting as part of their duties, and the repetitive motion puts them at risk for back injuries and other joint damage. While some exoskeleton projects rely on power assists and complex digital electronic controllers, the Lowes exosuit relies on a simple, passive design. Carbon fiber sticks are connected to a worker’s legs, hips, and shoulders using fabric straps. When the wearer bends over to pick up an object, the sticks bend like springs. When the worker goes to straighten up to lift a load, this stored energy is released as when a bent bow shoots an arrow, providing an automatic assist.

This clever form of energy harvesting makes heavy loads feel lighter, and could help reduce worker fatigue and injuries from lifting heavy objects. The exosuits are already being tested in a store in Christianburg, Virginia. If the suit proves to be a significant improvement, the company will expand its use. The end result could be a relatively low cost device that could help workers in many settings.