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Bionic devices turn humans into superstrong workers

Iron Man suits might not yet be commonplace, but companies from Ford (F) to Lowe's (LOW) are testing new mechanical exoskeletons to enhance -- and extend -- human strength.

Earlier this month, Ford said it was testing four models of exoskeletal arms to help ease fatigue for assembly line workers.

Hyundai last year announced it was working on a wearable robot suit. And Germany's Audi (VLKAY) began testing robotic assist technology for production plants in 2015. Universities from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to U.C. Berkeley are also developing technology, mostly inspired by potential medical use.

"My job entails working over my head, so when I get home my back, neck and shoulders usually hurt," said Paul Collins, an assembly line worker at Ford's Michigan Assembly Plant, in a statement released by Ford. "Since I started using the vest, I'm not as sore, and I have more energy to play with my grandsons when I get home."

The potential for expansion into other industries like construction or loading and unloading of goods is becoming more realistic as scientists rethink older designs, Scientific American reported earlier this year.

The global market for bionic devices may rise to $12.1 billion by 2026, up from $3.2 billion last year, when the US had almost 40 percent of the global market, according to report from BCC Research earlier this year.

Ekso Bionics (EKSO) announced last week that it's providing technology to Ford, a device called the EksoVest, and its stock has climbed since then. That's even though it reported selling fewer units than some analysts expected when it released third-quarter results earlier this month.

Called EksoVest, the wearable technology elevates and supports a worker's arms while performing overhead tasks. FORD

The fledgling company, which listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange last year, has $33.44 million in cash, enough to fund operations for more than a year, according to its quarterly filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

Bionic device use in factories, or anyplace a heavy lift is eased by a machine, is an expansion of intense interest in and use of the technology, especially for medical rehabilitation. Ekso's GT product, for instance, is involved in 62 studies touching on 1,500 patents, according to the SEC filing.

"We find Ekso's technology to be innovative and believe the long-term opportunity for medical exoskeletons remains compelling," wrote Bruce Nudell, an analyst at SunTrust Robinson Humphrey.

Ekso is hardly the only company developing exoskeletal products. Dozens of others are working on products for use in the medical industry and beyond it. About three dozen others exist, including ReWalk Robotics (RWLK) and the much larger Parker-Hannafin (PH), are working on new products.

In October, Parker's Indego exoskeleton was approved for expanded medical use. And Japan's Cyberdyne said last week it's seeking US approval for its assisted-movement system.

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