These small devices are also called exoskeletons. They are strapped to people's bodies and help them lift heavy loads.
Self-testing on the tailgate of a car: On the assembly line, workers often have to work overhead for hours.Emmanuele Contini
At first glance, Horst Schlämmer and "Star Wars" have nothing to do with each other. One is the best-known fictional character of German comedian Hape Kerkeling. Schlämmer is a man with a walrus beard and brute 80s humor, with back problems and gasping for breath. A man from the past, so to speak. The other is the most famous science fiction series in world cinema, packed with crazy technology. Quasi a glimpse into a possible future.
The two certainly go together when it comes to tackling a major problem in the modern working world. After all, the phrase "I have a back" is not just Horst Schlämmer's running gag. The saying has also become a catchphrase in our affluent world because it is an expression of a widespread disease. The Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has the figures: Working people in Germany are sick an average of 17 days a year, which accounts for 700 million hours not worked. The loss of production is estimated at almost 87 billion euros. And a quarter of all sick leave is due to damage to the musculoskeletal system - mostly to the back or shoulders.
And that's where "Star Wars" comes in, as a symbol of the science fiction world, which is often about subjugating or saving humanity with ingenious or nasty technology. There, people sometimes slip into giant one-person fighting machines. These act like powerful armor, much like the outer skeleton of insects, also called an exoskeleton. The machines serve the humans as powerful extensions of their arms and legs. With their help, the little people can now lift huge things - without any "back" at all.
This raises the question of whether such exoskeletons already exist in reality and whether they actually make everyday work easier for the heaviest workers?
One billion in sales per year
The answer leads to the beautifully nostalgically renovated former Bötzow Brewery in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg district. On a white table there lies a high-tech device. "This is a real exoskeleton, such as those used in the automotive industry," says Janos Joskowitz of the Ottobock company.
This is a world leader when it comes to prostheses. Bock founded the company in Berlin shortly after the First World War, from which hundreds of thousands of war-disabled people returned home without arms and legs. Bock supplied them with replacements. Today, the company generates annual sales of around one billion euros with prostheses and, since 2018, has also wanted to be at the forefront of the future market for exoskeletons. With the company German Bionic, it is one of the largest German suppliers.
The exoskeleton is worn like a hiking backpack: next to the shoulders are flexible "secondary arms" that are strapped to the patient's own arms.Emmanuele Contini
Exoskeleton on the table looks stylish. The futuristic design is reminiscent of science fiction. The matte, gray-black look and the slim and elegant shapes would easily fit into movies like "Alien". But the thing to strap on your back is not a combat device, but a work aid of the future. It is a lightweight device, weighing just two kilos.
Janos Joskowitz is an exoskeleton expert at Ottobock and explains that there are two classic areas of application: first, when the workforce has to do a lot of heavy lifting. "As well as industries where people have to do a lot of overhead work," Joskowitz says, talking about mechanics who fit out the inside of airplanes, craftsmen who drill holes in ceilings, or mechanics who screw on the floor panel in the shaft under the car.
The problems: heavy lifting, sitting for long periods, standing too much
Working continues to be one of the major health hazards. It is commonly said that most accidents happen in the home, but everyday wear and tear on the musculoskeletal system occurs due to the monotony of heavy work, constantly wrong movements or overload.
According to a survey by the trade union, half of all construction workers say: The daily work routine is so exhausting that they no longer have a real quality of life after work. They have "backs" because they hunch over too much, just like warehouse workers or washing machine fitters. For tile setters, bad knees have long been recognized as an occupational disease. Others have "backs" because they stand for too long, like teachers or sales clerks. But many people who only work at computers also suffer from back problems because they sit too much: Office workers, cashiers, dentists, bus drivers. Others have "shoulder" because they work too much overhead, like welders in shipyards. "Or even carmakers who do monotonous work on the assembly line with their arms raised for long periods of time," Joskowitz says.
He has set up something there for the self-experiment. In front of the white wall is a frame on which the open trunk lid of a car hangs. The workers on the assembly line have to spend hours installing thick bundles of cables in the door. After only a short time, the muscles in their arms start to tingle. Signs of fatigue. It's like painting the ceiling. So quickly let the arm hang again.
Now can this stylish thing actually help? The exoskeleton is worn like a backpack. The abdominal belt closes tightly, as does the chest strap. The device is so light and flexible that hardly anything is noticeable. Only in the corner of your eye, something long and black sticks out to the left and right of your shoulders. These are flexible rods, bendable like glass fever. So simply bend down these elastic additional arms and strap the upper arm to them. Now the arm stays up, without any effort.
Brain surgeons also use the technology
"One is using the old principle of the hiking backpack," Joskowitz says. "It's about redistributing energy: shifting and redistributing the load and weight to the strongest bone we have: the hip." In addition, there is a second mechanism of action: a kind of energy storage in the springs at the back. "When I put the device on, my arm movements put energy into the system, which is then released as I work." It's a closed-loop power system, he said. "It's like a scale. If there's 200 kilos on both sides, it takes very little extra energy on one side to move the other side up."
It really works: The weight of the arms has virtually disappeared. No more fatigue at the tailgate. It even takes strength to push the arms all the way down. With the exoskeleton, you walk like a semi-strong teenager - as if you had razor blades under your armpits.
Heavy lifting is required by employees working for parcel delivery companies or in warehouses. There are also auxiliary devices that actually work.Emmanuele Contini
But the exoskeletons aren't designed to help people who already have "backs." "They are meant to be used as a precautionary measure for certain types of work so that employees don't get backs in the first place," Joskowitz says.
It has other uses as well: Restacking wheels of cheese, hanging spools of yarn on looms, cutting fruit trees. "The artists at the Augsburger Puppenkiste also use such devices," he says. They have to work with their puppets overhead all the time. And there are very delicate jobs that require extreme dexterity and where the arms must not tire - even after hours. "A brain surgeon from Göttingen uses this technique."
The working life is also extended
There are about 100 small and large manufacturers worldwide, and more than 10,000 devices are in use in Germany. The test version costs from 1900 euros at Ottobock. Many companies don't like to talk about the use of these devices because they admit that the work is hard.
The domestic working world is now primarily one thing: a world of necessity. Not only is there a severe shortage of specialized skilled workers, but physically hard work is not popular. There are also no longer armies of unemployed people ready to do almost any job. Even women today would rather go to office jobs than stand in a hair salon for eight hours and ruin their backs.
"The world of work has changed drastically," says Urs Schneider from Stuttgart. The 51-year-old knows his way around the world of technical aids in everyday work. He works at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation. "For a long time, the working world was dominated by black pedagogy," he says. "The motto was: 'First of all, as an apprentice, have it as hard as I did back then. So now you sweep the yard." For a long time, there was also an idiosyncratic pride among people who worked hard. It doesn't matter whether they knowingly ruined their health as miners in the GDR while mining uranium at Wismut or as coal miners in the Ruhr area. "Today, the focus is no longer just on salary, but on quality of life," Schneider says. "Today, there's a different view of people and society, and fortunately, there's a different discussion about workforce health issues." In addition, he says, there are clear requirements from occupational health and safety.
The world's smallest exoskeleton: it comes over the fingertip and helps when someone has to stuff something somewhere for hours.Emmanuele Contini
Schneider heads the Fraunhofer Institute's health division with 70 scientists, teaches at the university and focuses his research on biomechatronics. This involves human-technology solutions such as prostheses, wheelchairs or the improvement of surgical procedures so that patients have better functionality afterwards. Schneider also conducts research on exoskeletons.
"Such tools are not zeitgeist frills, not expensive uselessness," he says. That's because the shortage of skilled workers is compounded by another development. "Because there's a lack of young people paying into the pension funds, everyone has to work longer and longer." That's one reason why there are now ergonomic chairs or height-adjustable desks in the office or exoskeletons in the parcel warehouse.
But so far, there has been a lack of scientific studies to determine whether a benefit can actually be proven. "Now there is a large international collaboration of universities," he says. In one study, he looked at the work performance of 60 welders in Hamburg. Some worked for 60 minutes as usual, while others wore different types of exoskeletons.
Only the last resort
"The results were clear: the welders with the exoskeletons said the work was less strenuous, plus the work results were clearly better, too."
Urs Schneider says that such aids are only the last option. He explains that the TOP principle now applies in many industries to minimize damage to health. The acronym stands for technology-organization-person. First, they see if technology can help, for example small lifting cranes for sorting parcels. If these are too slow or unwieldy, then it is looked at whether the work organization can be changed so that the parcels are perhaps delivered in such a way that they no longer have to be lifted. "In the best case, changes in point 1 or 2 are enough to ensure that people aren't exhausted at the end of their workday," Schneider says. Only if neither of those things bear fruit would assistive devices such as exoskeletons be added to the bodies.
In the former Bötzow brewery, the second self-experiment now follows: lifting heavy loads. The second stylish black something is significantly larger. However, it does not support the strength of the arms, but is placed in front of the chest. I squat down, the resulting energy is stored in a gas spring, and when I lift the wooden box, the spring releases the energy. It is as if someone is gently but very firmly pressing against my chest. The box is light.
The box is actually small but heavy: But with this exoskeleton, it is significantly lighter.Emmanuele Contini
Janos Joskowitz smiles and points to a black thimble. "This is the smallest exoskeleton in the world," he says. For the fingertip. It helps when someone has to stuff something in somewhere with their finger for hours.
Urs Schneider tells us that the ideas actually originated in the 1960s, when science fiction films also began their triumphant advance. "In the 1980s and 1990s, a lot was tried out in the car industry in Japan," says the scientist. Now many developments are ready for the market. "We expect such systems to really take off in the market from around 2025." Interest is growing, he adds. The devices are also still getting thinking electronics or small assist motors. "Development is still pretty much at the beginning," Schneider says. Research now, he says, is at about the point where the car was around 1890. "But these innovations have the potential to positively change the world of work."