In early January, it was showtime in Las Vegas for German Bionic's exoskeletons. The German start-up presented its high-tech backpacks, which help workers lift and carry, at the CES electronics trade show. The show was rewarded with one of the "Best of Innovation" awards, quite a few US media reported fascinated about the mechanical exoskeletons.
The prestige success comes at an important stage. This year, the management wants to start series production, so it's a matter of winning customers. Especially in North America: "We expect the U.S. to become the strongest market," says Armin G. Schmidt, head of the electronics manufacturer. However, the competition is tough.
Who is it about?
German Bionic emerged from a university research project on the use of exoskeletons in industry. When the funding ended, Peter Heiligensetzer and Armin G. Schmidt decided to further develop one of the prototypes. In 2017, they founded the company together with investor Michael Halbherr in Augsburg.
Over the years, the company has developed several products: six generations of the exoskeleton, a safety vest with sensors, and also a cloud platform. "We don't see ourselves as a pure hardware company," emphasizes Schmidt, who took over as chief executive in 2018. The data analysis is intended to help customers make their work healthy and efficient.
How does the technology work?
The "Apogee Power Suit" - the name of the current model - remotely resembles a backpack with a hard shell that is attached to the shoulders, hips and thighs. The device weighs around 7.5 kilograms, which is about as much as well-filled hiking luggage.
For this, the power suit, which costs just under 10,000 euros, offers considerable support. The device has motors and gears. In combination, they act like an electronic muscle that relieves the lower back by up to 30 kilograms. In a logistics center or factory, the support can add up to several tons per employee over the course of the day, Schmidt emphasizes.
The exoskeleton is not high-tech armor for superheroes, as the technology might lead you to think, but an everyday tool in factories and warehouses. In a sense, it is "Iron Man's" little brother.
Is this becoming a trend?
The search for skilled workers is becoming increasingly difficult, especially in aging societies. Companies must therefore do something to ensure that their employees remain healthy for a long time. "Our vision is to keep people fit longer with tools they can put on," says Schmidt.
The manager currently sees the greatest potential in sectors such as industry and logistics. Customers include Dachser and DPD, as well as some airports and retail companies. However, the use of the technology also makes sense in other sectors, such as healthcare and nursing.
Based on various studies, German Bionic estimates that the market for exoskeletons will grow by an average of 43 percent to $20.8 billion by 2030. If that happens, the niche will become a mass market.
German Bionic has brought its products to production maturity with a total of almost 50 million dollars in borrowed capital. So far, however, the start-up has sold comparatively small numbers of units. According to the company, sales are in the double-digit million range, but it does not provide precise business figures.
Now mass production is on the horizon, and automotive supplier Mubea will manufacture the devices. Demand is now high, Schmidt stresses: "Word has got around that the technology can be used sensibly."
The start-up is seeing more orders and recently larger quantities, sometimes hundreds of devices at a time. This is important for the business plan: "According to current forecasts, we are financed through to break-even."
Meanwhile, other manufacturers also want to seize the opportunity. According to Schmidt, several manufacturers in the U.S. and Japan are working on active exoskeletons with motors. "It's already a scramble." This was also evident at CES, where a number of competitors' employees came to the booth.
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Source: German Bionic: Start-up builds exoskeletons for the mass market (handelsblatt.com) (03.02.2023)