Free consultation:
(Mon. - Fri.: 09:00 - 18:00)

Exoskeletons in the skilled trades: making the hard jobs easier and better

Working hard physically is part of the trade. But what can be done when the strength is not or no longer sufficient? A research project in the plumbing, heating and air-conditioning trade shows how exoskeletons can make everyday life easier for employees and increase motivation.

Christoph Reichart, fitter at Hans Schramm Baddesign in Munich
Christoph Reichart, a fitter at Hans Schramm Baddesign in Munich, thinks the futuristic look of the exoskeletons is cool and enjoys having them help him with heavy everyday tasks. - © Tanja Kernweise

RoboCop look instead of boring blue overalls? Christoph Reichhart, fitter at Hans Schramm Baddesign in Munich, feels at home in his Exoskeleton and is happy to wear this visibly. over the work clothes. "There are very different types, some just don't want it to be seen and wear it under their clothes," knows Kilian Schramm, who runs the family business together with his father. The fact that his team of 80 employees was even given the chance to and to test physical assistance systems, some of which seem futuristic, This is mainly due to the company's almost traditional open-mindedness towards new solutions, which has already earned it several awards. "Munich's number one pool builder" brought in.

So that this also in the future remains so and the operation always have enough qualified specialists the Munich-based company has invested in the Research project "Journeyman Craftsman 4.0" of the German Sanitation, Heating and Air Conditioning Association (ZVSHK). The aim was to investigate in practice, whether exoskeletons can facilitate the often physically heavy and stressful activities in the skilled trades. This would not only give skilled workers the chance to stay longer and healthier in a profession, but it could also New target groups for training in the skilled trades who were previously not interested because of the supposedly high physical strain.

Benefits in practice: up to 20 kilos of relief are possible

As far as relieving the burden on bathroom renovation specialists, Kilian Schramm is convinced of the benefits of the little technical helpers: "The physical demands on employees decrease enormously, they can work faster and also deliver first-class quality for longer, so we can also offer our services more cost-effectively." A clear Win-win situation for everyone involved. Kilian Schramm therefore decided during the project to provide an exoskeleton to every employee who wanted to use it. "We have a Test model that everyone can try for a month can. If desired, he will then receive his own model with his name on it," explains the entrepreneur.

Motivation for the team: Getting bonuses more easily

The company invests around 800 Swiss francs (approx. 810 euros) each time for the Model of a Swiss manufacturerwhich has proved to be the best solution for the requirements of the pool builder in a practical test. Currently, five employees entrusted with demolition work are using the exoskeleton, although not for exactly the same motives that the initiators had in mind, as Kilian Schramm confirms: "The employees have found that the exoskeletons allow them to Less back have and thus also the Construction schedule easier to meetfor which they each receive a bonus."

However, it is precisely these Experiences from everyday practicethat the "Handwerksgeselle 4.0" project also wanted to bring to light. After all, what good is the best theoretical approach if the solutions are not accepted by the employees? How important it is to Protect the health of professionals and maintain their ability to work, Matthias Thiel, project manager at the ZVSHK, has impressive figures to back this up: "Every year, twice as many skilled workers leave the workforce as join it, and there is currently a shortage of 41,000 fitters and 31,500 trainees in our industry.

Interest in ergonomics grows with shortage of skilled workers

This is a huge gap that cannot, of course, be closed by the use of physical assistance systems alone. But in the long term, according to Thiel, these could be the for long-lasting activities with the same load profile ensure that younger professionals can work longer without health impairments and that older employees can stay on the job a little longer.

The survey of 1,800 SHK guild companies conducted as part of the project shows that just under half of the larger companies have a Higher ergonomic awareness developed than in the past. Project manager Thiel also reports many inquiries from company bosses who want to test the use of exoskeletons in their operations.

Exoskeletons: The advantages

Less stress and absenteeism, more motivation and satisfaction - the bosses see the use of exoskeletons positively.

Heavy work: What companies do to lighten the load for employees

Lifting aids or employee deployment based on load tolerance are the first choice for a good two-thirds of companies.

Kathrin de Blois, managing partner at Haas Haustechnik in Mönchengladbach, has joined Kilian Schramm in the same way. Participation in the pilot project in the craft determined. "As always with new solutions, we have the talked through with the team, nothing is imposed on us," emphasizes Kathrin de Blois, who runs the family business with 50 employees together with her father and brother. In the reactions of the employees was across all ages everything from great curiosity to typical skepticism: "Some thought it was cool and even really enjoyed working with the exoskeletons."

Wishful thinking: An exoskeleton for all work

The systems tested at Haas were those that meet the Support back when carrying. However, the Job very versatileThis means that an employee needs a different exoskeleton for overhead work, for example, than for carrying heavy loads. Because even passive systems without motor assistance cost well into triple digits and the Dressing and undressing not very practical in everyday working life is, can Several assistance systems per employee according to the assessment of Kathrin de Blois also not the solution The effort involved in constantly changing them is greater than the benefit. However, if the exoskeletons were easier to handle in everyday life and also somewhat cheaper, the entrepreneur sees "a huge potential" in this for her business as well.

Wishful thinking from practice or realistic vision of the future? Robert Weidner, Managing Director of ExoIQ GmbH in Hamburg, which is also involved in the ZVSHK project, and Professor of Production Engineering at the University of Innsbruck, can be in favor of some types of exoskeletons quite a Integration into the work clothing "The solutions are becoming more and more streamlined and work is already being done on textile support systems, but these naturally have a different effect than assistance systems attached to the outside of the body." From his point of view, the most important task at this stage is to Increase acceptance among employees: "Some people are not comfortable with that because they are perceived to be weaklings, so we need to focus especially on the Coolness factor increase, then acceptance among employees will also increase."

Sticking point: the ego of male colleagues

Kilian Schramm can only confirm the professor's assessment based on his experience in day-to-day operations. "The employees have to come to terms with their ego and the Exoskeleton also want to wear, this is more important than scientific studies and measurements."

Checklist: What you need to check before use

Simply buying, strapping on and getting started does not work with exoskeletons. The assistance systems worn on the body must not only be individually adapted to the respective wearer, but should also only be used when other protective measures are not possible or sufficient. The employers' liability insurance associations therefore recommend the following procedure.

  • Step 1: Carry out risk assessment
    To find out in which activities an exoskeleton can really relieve and support your employees, you must first determine the physical stresses at the individual workplaces as part of a risk assessment and clarify the extent to which support can be useful.
  • Step 2: Check alternatives
    Wherever other technical and organizational ergonomic protective measures, such as electric stair climbers, cannot be implemented, the use of individual assistance systems in the form of exoskeletons can be useful. Inform the employees about the advantages and disadvantages of the assistance systems and involve your team or a representative appointed by the employees in the further steps.
  • Step 3: Select suitable products
    There are now more than 100 manufacturers on the market offering solutions for a wide range of requirements, some of which are usually also represented at the major trade shows in the craft sector. Check which products seem best suited to your requirements and contact the manufacturer.
  • Step 4: Plan and carry out practical test
    Agree on a period of time with the manufacturer during which interested employees have the opportunity to test the exoskeletons in everyday working life after a detailed briefing. Make it clear that the aim is not to uncover physical weaknesses, but to provide physical relief and long-term health protection.
  • Step 5: Check effectiveness
    With the help of the manufacturer, observe and document exactly in which activities the exoskeletons provide effective support and where they may interfere or even create new sources of danger. Critical points are loops or rods protruding from the body, depending on the system.
  • Step 6: Procure products
    Draw up internal specifications for the areas of application in question - if necessary with the support of the relevant employers' liability insurance association - whose criteria the assistance and support systems must fulfill. Ask who would like to use such a system for which tasks and, if necessary, equip the employees with individual solutions.

Source: Exoskeletons in the skilled trades: making heavy jobs easier and better - handwerk magazin ( (09.02.2023)

Tom Illauer

All contributions from: