LIZ STINSON in WIRED
The Chairless Chair is an exoskeleton that allows workers to sit without straining their muscles.
STANDING IS GREAT for your health—Burn calories! Live longer! Tone those calves!—but only if you’re not forced to do it for hours on end. As with sitting on your bum, everything is best in moderation.
The thing is, if you work in a factory, you don’t get to choose when you sit and when you stand. You’re mostly standing. Employees in Audi’s manufacturing plants, for example, stand for nearly eight hours a day. And much of the time they’re stooped over in uncomfortable positions, fine-tuning some detail on an engine or console cluster.
It’s ergonomic nightmare, one Audi is trying to correct with a unique piece of technology: the Chairless Chair. Created by Swiss startup Noonee, it’s a hydraulic powered chair that lends lower-body support to people who have to stand all day long. You can think of it as a really bad-ass wearable or an especially lame exoskeleton.
The design is straightforward: A titanium frame hugs the back of the worker’s leg like a flexible brace, while a support belt is strapped around their torso. Workers can stand and walk like normal, but when they want to sit, pushing a button locks the frame into place at the desired angle. The weight the body is transfered through the frame to the floor or the heels. “You get the sensation of sitting on a barstool,” says Keith Gunura, a Noonee co-founder.
Why not simply sit on a chair? Companies like Audi have optimized factory floorplans designed to maximize efficiency, with little room, literally or figuratively, for chairs. The Chairless Chair effectively lets employees carry a seat with them at all times.
The approach posed some ergonomic challenges. Noonee designers say the biggest problem was ensuring workers can move freely. After a close study of how the leg moves when walking, they decided against creating a single rotation point at the knee in favor of a frame that moves more freely, accommodating many different gaits. (Noonee was vague on the details because it has a patent pending.)
Audi envisions the device being a task-specific tool that will help workers at the engine, door and center console assembly stations. The company says the chair will let employees take “micro breaks” of three to 10 seconds while working, easing muscle fatigue and increasing productivity.
The Chairless Chair doesn’t provide added strength like Lockheed Martin’s Fortis exoskeleton, but it is lighter, more comfortable and uses far less energy, so you might see them beyond factory walls. “I’ve had hunters say they’ll pay a pretty penny to use the device,”Gunura says. Fishermen, surgeons, farmers and retail workers also have expressed interest. “Basically anyone who’s standing for long periods of time.”