How Do Exoskeletons Change Shoulder Biomechanics?

A New Design Tool for “Human-In-the-Loop” Optimization of Shoulder Exoskeletons

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Shoulder exoskeleton is a popular solution to work-related shoulder disorders and muscle fatigue. With a wide range of exoskeletons designed, a comprehensive report on how the use of shoulder exoskeletons changes shoulder biomechanics is still missing. In this project, the impact of exoskeletons on shoulder biomechanics was investigated with the musculoskeletal simulation OpenSim. This study proposed a "human-in-the-loop" optimization-based design tool for shoulder exoskeletons. This design tool incorporates the predicted biomechanical effects of a shoulder exoskeleton from musculoskeletal simulations into design considerations. This design tool was validated with a case study designing a shoulder exoskeleton based on a compliant beam and testing the design in the musculoskeletal simulation and experiments.

The exoskeleton design tool is a coupling of finite element analysis and OpenSim. OpenSim calculates the deformation of the exoskeleton with human motion, and the finite element analysis calculates the force exerted from the exoskeleton upon deformation. Then OpenSim computes muscle activities under the external force from the exoskeleton. By merging muscle activities and the resultant glenohumeral joint reaction force to an objective function, the optimization-based design loop is closed by looking for the best objective value iteratively.

Several exoskeletons were designed by the new design tool to assist different types of tasks. The design tool exhibited good ability in finding optimal solutions for a range of design choices and design requirements. Simulated tests of designed exoskeletons showed significant effects on reducing muscle activities and good robustness in resisting the influence of perturbed motions in arm-elevated tasks. An exoskeleton was selected to be tested with an experiment set up in the same way as the simulated test. Experiment results supported the performance of the exoskeleton predicted in the simulated test.

This project established a method to comprehensively predict the effect of an exoskeleton on shoulder biomechanics and provided a more comprehensive understanding of biomechanical effects of shoulder exoskeletons. This facilitated the “human-in-the-loop” design process of shoulder exoskeletons which could greatly save money and time investments into prototyping, testing, and validation.