Over the last several years, office workers have begun to see the error of their sedentary ways. Study after study has shown that sitting down all day can contribute to a bunch of health problems, including diabetes and cancer. The solution: Stand up for part of the workday. In some companies, nearly one-third of the workforce has adopted sit-and-stand workstations.
Factory workers, on the other hand, have the opposite problem. Standing on an assembly line for hours puts undue stress on lower limbs, joints and the back. It can also exacerbate existing conditions, such as diseases of the heart.
Yet at many factories, there’s not a chair in sight. Owners want to maximize space on the line and reduce clutter that might pose safety hazards, desires that leave little room for sitting. That’s why Zurich-based startup Noonee has developed the Chairless Chair, a wearable armature that provides workers with a place to perch—no matter where they are.
Keith Gunura, Noonee CEO and co-founder, first had the idea for an exoskeleton-type chair when he was 17 and working on a production line in a factory in the U.K. “We wanted the ability to sit anywhere and everywhere,” he recalls.
The Chairless Chair consists of a thin aluminum armature attached to the user’s shoes and waist. Wearers first clip on a belt, which contains the control module, then attach a strap onto the heel of their shoes (any heel a quarter-inch or larger will do). They tighten straps around their upper and lower legs and adjust the length of the aluminum frames to match the length of their calves and thighs.
When looking to sit, a worker bends his or her knees and presses a button on the control unit to lock the chair into place. A damper that extends from the knee to the heel provides the support. The system can hold up to 400 pounds and can lock in anywhere through the knee’s range of motion. Gunura says the best position is a perch, not unlike sitting on a barstool—an ideal posture because it keeps the wearer’s back straight. If you try to lean back, you’ll throw off your center of gravity and tip over.
The current Chairless Chair prototype weighs 4.4 pounds. Users can walk, even run, normally with the unit tied on. But, Gunura says the final version will be even lighter.
Gunura estimates that it will be three to five years before the Chairless Chair becomes a fixture in factories, but the company is gearing up for a robust set of trials in facilities across Europe and the U.K. that will begin within the next year. According to CNN, BMW and Audi will be among the first factories with the device. The company has not set a price yet, but says it will be affordable.
Noonee says that factory owners it’s been in contact with—the startup is not currently able to call their partners by name—see the productivity benefit of allowing their workers to take short rests during the workday. “We don’t want to promote long-term sitting; what you want are micro breaks,” says Gunura.
Once the professional rollout is underway, the company will begin adapting its technology to other fields, including medicine and rehabilitation, and eventually develop a consumer-friendly version. “We’ve had interest from surgeons saying that they want to try this as a substitute for their stool, which is something they normally have to move quite a lot,” Gunura explains.
Unlike other exoskeleton devices, the Chairless Chair does not imbue the wearer with extra strength or capabilities he or she might not otherwise have. Devices like the TitanArm, Gunura contends, could actually make the wearer weaker over time, as he or she progressively relies more and more on the mechanical assistance. “That’s the trade-off,” he says.
As for a layperson device, Gunura is fixated on making the Chairless Chair look as little like a rehab device or exosuit as possible. “We want to make it invisible, so that you can take it anywhere you want,” he imagines. “It could be embedded in your jeans.”