Some General Motors factory workers may soon look a little more like androids as they assemble your next car. GM is planning to test a new RoboGlove, which is based on technology GM designed in partnership with NASA, to reduce strain and improve grip in workers at some of its plants.

GM and NASA spent nine years developing the “Soft Extra Muscle” technology for use on a space robot that launched in 2011. The RoboGlove is described by Swedish manufacturer Bioservo as a soft exoskeleton. It uses special sensors and “tendon-like” servos to help multiply the wearer’s gripping or lifting force. The operator wears a belt-mounted battery pack, plus a glove with finger sensors and an arm wrap that contains most of the servos and actuators.

For somebody working a strenuous, repetitive job in a car assembly plant, wearing the glove could, “reduce the amount of force that a worker needs to exert when operating a tool for an extended time or with repetitive motions,” GM global manufacturing engineering vice president Kurt Wiese said in a statement.

Bioservo will sell versions of the glove for various different applications, including healthcare, but GM plans to be the first U.S. manufacturer to put the system into action. GM already tested a preproduction version of the RoboGlove and approached Bioservo for help developing versions suited to different sizes of hands and other real-world reliability issues.

Source: GM

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Robotic glove technology developed out of a partnership between General Motors and NASA for use on the International Space Station is finding new life on Earth in health care, manufacturing and other industrial applications though a licensing agreement between GM and Bioservo Technologies AB, a Swedish medical technology company.  

Working with GM, Bioservo will combine technology from its SEM GloveTM (Soft Extra Muscle) technology with the RoboGlove, a force-multiplying battery-powered wearable developed by GM and NASA during a nine-year collaboration that included the launch of the humanoid robot called Robonaut 2 (R2) into space in 2011.

The RoboGlove uses leading-edge sensors, actuators and tendons that are comparable to the nerves, muscles and tendons in a human hand. One design requirement for R2 was to operate tools designed for humans, and developers achieved unprecedented hand dexterity. That technology was applied to the RoboGlove.

Bioservo will initially develop a new grasp assist device for industrial use that could increase human operator efficiency while reducing fatigue in hand muscles. Research shows fatigue can occur within a few minutes of continuously gripping a tool.

“Combining the best of three worlds – space technology from NASA, engineering from GM and medtech from Bioservo – in a new industrial glove could lead to industrial scale use of the technology,” said Tomas Ward, CEO of Bioservo Technologies.  

Ward described the technology combination as a major step toward introducing soft exoskeleton technology globally. 

GM intends to be the first U.S. manufacturing customer for the refined robotic glove and will test it in some of its plants. Bioservo will make and sell the new glove for a variety of uses including medical rehabilitation and any place additional gripping strength is needed.

“The successor to RoboGlove can reduce the amount of force that a worker needs to exert when operating a tool for an extended time or with repetitive motions,” said Kurt Wiese, vice president of GM Global Manufacturing Engineering.  

GM briefly tested RoboGlove in a preproduction plant before looking for a partner to help refine it to fit different size hands and address other issues.