Spartanburg was the first automotive plant in the world to use the exoskeleton vest, BMW says. It's an example of one of many technologies the plant has pioneered for BMW's manufacturing network, said Oliver Zipse, the BMW board member in charge of production.
"We take out all opportunities to try something new, which we haven't done so far," Zipse said. If the idea works in Spartanburg, "we go somewhere else."
The U.S. plant is one of a handful of global BMW assembly plants where new ideas are tested. An optical laser-based system for measuring car bodies also originated here, Zipse said, before migrating to a BMW plant in China.
Other pioneering technologies include hydrogen-powered forklifts and collaborative robots. People work side-by-side on the door line at Spartanburg with those friendly robots, which don't need to be separated from humans with protective fencing.
Pochiro expects the exoskeleton vest to be adopted more widely once the innovation team turns it over to the production managers as an approved spare part that can be ordered for line workers as needed. That won't happen until at least next year. He wouldn't reveal the vests' cost.
BMW will experiment with using the vests for other tasks, including some done alongside vehicles instead of underneath.
"I can tell you, there's been such an interest, that we can really use a lot more of them," Pochiro said.
Other BMW plants are in early trials on the vests and are exploring additional wearables. In Spartanburg, Pochiro is investigating other devices, including those that help support a worker's legs, lower back, hands and neck. He is working with a number of wearable robotics suppliers and Harvard University.
Though many manufacturers have used robots to replace human workers, Pochiro looks at wearables as technology that can keep people on the job longer.
"These people want to continue to work as they get older," he said, "and I see wearable robotics really helping people to work and be able to do [the] job they want to be doing without having injuries that prevent them from doing that."