Businesses Bet on Iron Man-Like Exoskeletons; Taking a nod from Iron Man, bionic suits are available for almost $70,000. About 20 individuals in Europe have bought them so far.

Businesses Bet on Iron Man-Like Exoskeletons

By Thomas Black on March 28, 2013


In the 1960s, the Incredible Hulk rose to fame as Marvel Comics’ green mutant antihero with superhuman strength and some serious anger issues. Now Lockheed Martin (LMT) is betting that a modern-day hulk—make that HULC—will one day bring it supersize sales. Lockheed, the world’s largest defense contractor, envisions a leap forward in battlefield mobility with its Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC), a wearable exoskeleton intended to let a soldier lug a 200-pound pack with minimal effort over a 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) hike. That’s no small feat, since back strain is the military’s most common noncombat injury because of the heavy packs soldiers carry. Exoskeletons hold “tremendous potential” to ease those burdens, says David Accetta, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center, in an e-mail. The Army is planning a field demonstration of the device in May, and the HULC device is being refined to be more easily worn under a uniform. Neither Lockheed nor the Army would disclose funding details.

Lockheed, Parker Hannifin (PH), and a handful of startups are vying to find practical—and profitable—uses for the kind of bionic suits inspired by novelist Robert Heinlein’s 1959 novel Starship Troopers and Marvel editor Stan Lee’s Iron Man comic-book character. Wearable machines that enhance human muscle power may not only lighten soldiers’ loads but help factory workers hoist heavier tools and even enable some paraplegics to walk. “We’re now seeing a golden age in which we can produce this technology and derive benefit from it,” says Keith Maxwell, business development manager for Lockheed’s program. “There’s a host of industries where this works.”

The first sale of a medical exoskeleton to an individual for personal use (rather than to a rehabilitation center or hospital) came in September by Argo Medical Technologies, whose ReWalk exoskeleton assists patients who have lost the use of their legs. The company has since sold about 20 of the devices to individuals, all in Europe, making it a pioneer in a so-called human augmentation system market that may yield $400 million in annual sales by 2020, according to technology consultant ABI Research.

Lockheed says it hasn’t estimated the value of any contracts for its military HULC, nor for the nascent industrial market for its Mantis commercial assistive device, which will go on sale later this year for an undisclosed price. Still, developing technology for both civilian and military use could help Lockheed as it confronts reductions in U.S. arms spending. The Mantis device is meant to help workers who handle heavy equipment avoid fatigue or back injuries. It has a mechanical extension for a wearer’s arm and absorbs the strain from hefty power tools such as grinders or sanders, Maxwell says, yielding productivity gains of more than 30 percent. “It turns workers away from being a weight lifter and into a craftsman,” he says.

Parker Hannifin, the No. 1 global manufacturer of motion and control devices, is trying to expand into medical products with its upcoming Indego exoskeleton for those with spinal injuries. The Indego breaks into five pieces and resembles elongated, plastic football thigh pads. Ekso Bionics’ competing device looks like the lower half of a black metal skeleton able to stand by itself on foot pads. In both, electric motors amplify the strength in their wearers’ limbs or, in the case of the wheelchair-bound, provide the user with mobility. Computers and sensors help with balance and guidance. “There’s a huge wave of human augmentation coming,” says Ekso Chief Executive Officer Nathan Harding, whose company has devices in use at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in New Jersey, and other spinal injury centers. “It’s in its infancy.”

Parker Hannifin’s Indego model will go on sale in 2014 at a price the company says is competitive with Argo’s €52,000 ($67,230) ReWalk unit. Indego, developed in partnership with Vanderbilt University, is aimed at an estimated 700,000 Americans with permanent lower-limb disabilities who would be capable of using the device, says Achilleas Dorotheou, the Parker Hannifin program’s business unit manager.

The company is playing catch-up with Israel-based Argo, which was founded by Amit Goffer, who was paralyzed in a 1997 automobile accident. The Israeli manufacturer, which has sold about 65 medical exoskeletons, still lacks federal clearance for sales to individuals in the U.S. Argo may offer an American product without stair-climbing capabilities to speed approval, CEO Larry Jasinski says.

The bottom line: Taking a nod from Iron Man, bionic suits are available for almost $70,000. About 20 individuals in Europe have bought them so far.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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