MIA Focus: Larking about with exoskeletons

Kaylene Larking, MIA
MIA science guru Kaylene Larking.

Once the stuff of science-fiction, the future is coming to a meat industry workplace near you in the not-too-distant future. The Meat Industry Association (MIA)’s Kaylene Larking spent time last month strapped into an Exoskeleton, new wearable technology being trialled to reduce injuries in meat processing.

It’s all part of Larking’s day job as research partnerships manager for the trade organisation for which she has run MIA Innovation Ltd since 2015. She helps lead the MIA’s continual quest for new science and technology to invest in to improve products, food safety and the health and safety of the sector and the jobs of its people.

“It’s really neat to see some brand-new emerging technology, see the potential of it from my desk and watch it come to life when showing it to people,” says Larking.

A roadshow was organised in November for meat industry people to learn more and try on the new technology. This was led by MIA, but primarily funded by WorkSafe, with which the trade association had signed a partnership agreement in 2018.

The Exoskeleton, from US company SuitX, is designed to provide strength and support for mechanical and repetitive tasks, cutting injuries and increasing productivity. It has potential for being especially useful during periods of repetitive carton lifting and stacking at height in the meat processing works.

Two beta-prototype models of the spring-loaded non-mechanical device were shown: one worn like a backpack to assist shoulder movements; the other a version for the back that is worn like a harness. Both fit a wide range of sizes and can be used independently or together as the job requires. There are no cables to have to contend with, it does not require batteries, can be donned and doffed easily and the worker will be able to move naturally, but with extra strength and safety.

The robotic exoskeleton originated in the US medical world following its invention by a researcher looking for a way to help his paraplegic friend to move again. After expanding into use by the military, it is now entering industrial processing where it is finding a niche. Studies have shown the units reduce muscle activity by 45 percent during tasks.

The MIA had been following the technology along with AsureQuality for some time and had been liaising with Australia’s Meat & Livestock Association (MLA) on a number of industry-good projects, where it makes sense for them to work together, Larking relates.

“MLA had done a lot of the groundwork, establishing that SuitX was the most reliable company to work with,” she says.

After its members had seen the technology at the IFFA meat processing trade show in Germany last year, MIA invited its Australian agent Biosymm to New Zealand. It was also helpful that the agents are physiotherapists with a focus on injury prevention in the workplace, so they understand the stresses bodies are under during strenuous activity and see SuitX as a valuable tool to reduce the risk of injury.

Enthusiastic response

Jim Curran of Alliance Group's Lorneville Plant near Invercargill tries out the exoskeleton wearable technology
Jim Curran of Alliance Group’s Lorneville Plant near Invercargill tries out the exoskeleton.

Larking was thrilled at the interested and enthusiastic turnout to the seminars, which saw about 110 representatives from MIA’s member companies and other invited guests attending the six sessions, held from Hamilton through to Invercargill.

“The awesome thing was that, for anyone who wasn’t quite sure of the technology, as soon as they tried it on they could see what the benefits were going to be.”

For many it was: “A lightbox moment,” she says. They could see the Exoskeleton is a handy tool allowing the unit to take the strain of lifting things.

“It’s designed to make you use your muscles properly. You can’t lift more weight but it gives you support and assistance for the dangerous aspects of the job.”

More work is required to customise the Exoskeleton for use in a meat processing environment, especially the hygiene areas, and also to determine how it might work with other protective gear used by workers.

“It’s not perfect yet, because it’s still in development, but Biosymm will provide a whole heap of support to help us customise the suits to our requirements,” says Larking. “Where a company might have been thinking you need a robot to do a job, we can now power people up to help them so they don’t get injured. That’s wonderful.”

While v3 of the Exoskeleton can be bought directly off the shelf now for between $7,000-9,000 for use in coolstores and non-hygiene areas, she is hoping to see the final New Zealand customised version available for use in processing plants in about 12-18 months.

Making science readily available for people

Larking’s delight at the response – a career highlight for her – highlights her passion for translating science from a meaningless jumble of jargon to the layperson into practical applications.

“One thing I really like about my job is that I get the chance to look at the science and make it readily available for people and make it useful,” she says, admitting she’s always “been a bit of a science nerd.”

Hailing from Whakatane, the former co-dux of Whakatane High School graduated with a BSc honours degree in chemistry from Victoria University of Wellington in the early 1980s.

DSIR snapped the new graduate up and her expertise grew as a scale up chemist in its industrial processing division, where she worked on moving chemistry from the laboratory bench into commercial scale drug production. She spent a lot of time in a full air-supplied body-suit there, because of the toxicity of the substances with which she was working.

Another career highlight came during her 20 years at DSIR/Industrial Research Limited from working on the development of a drug that is used today in the treatment of metastatic breast cancer. At a particularly difficult stage of the early work, working with stainless steel reactors and 100 litre rotary evaporators – not the usual two litre versions used in normal laboratory work – she remembers a colleague remarking that if their work saved one person, getting through that day would be worth it. Now in commercial production, that product is extending the lifetimes of patients being treated for cancer.

When DSIR/IRL closed, she segued into managing the Meat Biologics Research Consortium run by Beef + Lamb New Zealand, later managing the Johne’s Research Consortium, which finished its work around three or four years ago. She still manages the Johne’s Advisory Group.

As manager for MIA Innovation Ltd – the industry’s 50:50-funded research partnership with Ministry of Business Innovation & Employment – Larking is responsible for leading and focusing 90 percent of the meat industry’s science research. She works closely with MIA Innovation manager Richard McColl and the Food Safety Science Research Centre.

Larking’s a big fan of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, machine-learning, visioning and non-invasive testing systems to help with that.

“When we talk about wanting to make the meat industry better, a lot of the things that we’re aiming at – that our consumers expect of us – we need these new technologies to bring them to bear, she says.

“With most of our processing done in rural communities, it’s an opportunity to make manual labour jobs into high-end jobs to which people want to attain. It’s got to improve our businesses,” she says.

Another big project she’s involved in developing is work by the MIA looking ahead at what a meat plant will look like in 20-25 years. Still in the early design stage, the project will help assess which of these emerging technologies, some of which are at the high-risk end of science, are going to be relevant for the sector.

“But, I would like to think that we’ll be using some of them – such as artificial intelligence and visioning systems, combined with genetics and other pre-slaughter data about the animals – wisely in our meat plants within the next 10-15 years, to make improved products and create better and safer jobs for our workforce.”

This article appeared in Food NZ magazine (December/January 2019) and is reproduced here with permission.

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