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Workers as human-machines: How good are today's exoskeletons?

Exoskeletons are also set to transform the world of work - and are particularly interesting in times of an aging population, so that people can work healthily for longer. Even the authorities say that widespread use is now possible. And the devices were anything but unpopular at the Hannover Messe.

The arms are suddenly very light: A ceiling could now be painted without any problem - and other overhead work would probably also be made easier by the device presented at the Hannover Messe. This is because the otherwise quickly tiring shoulder area is currently being supported by an exoskeleton. Experts believe that such support devices worn on the body are now suitable for everyday use - and may help an aging population to work healthily for longer.

At least that's how David Duwe sees it: "In the course of the discussion about labor shortages, exoskeletons are certainly gaining in importance," says the manager of the exoskeleton division at Ottobock from Duderstadt in southern Lower Saxony. The company has been manufacturing orthoses and prostheses for medical needs for more than 100 years, but for a good ten years now it has also been involved in exoskeletons for the working world. The Duderstadt-based company is not alone in this; a whole range of suppliers in Germany and around the world are working on the same topic.

In particular, the aim is to provide support for lifting larger loads and for overhead work. This does not sound like spectacular human machines that provide support for all kinds of activities and are somewhat reminiscent of robots. There are said to be such machines, but according to experts, they hardly play a role on the market - probably also because they are quite expensive.

But back and shoulder problems are among the most common reasons for sick leave or early retirement. Various studies put the loss of value added in Germany resulting from musculoskeletal disorders at up to 30 billion euros per year. Accordingly, the market for exoskeletons available today is already large.

Ottobock focuses on passive exoskeletons

Ottobock is one of the manufacturers that rely on so-called passive exoskeletons: It is not a motor that provides power, but mechanical springs or special elastics that support movement. They connect a backpack-like harness to cuffs on the arms, for example. The adjustable tension then provides noticeable relief.

In particular, passive skeletons, here one from Ottobock, are also attested to by BauA as being ready for the market and for a wide range of applications.

In particular, passive skeletons, here one from Ottobock, are also attested to by BauA as being ready for the market and for a wide range of applications.

© Source: Michael Matthey/dpa

The lack of active support does have advantages: There are no batteries to run down, nor does it require complicated control electronics. Instead, a lot of development effort has gone into comfort: It takes less than a minute to put on, and 20 seconds of set-up time is typical for experienced users, according to Duwe. The range of movement is also virtually unrestricted - and with the newer models for the back area, for example, a warehouse worker can sit up in the forklift truck without any problems in between, as Duwe demonstrates at the trade show, not without pride.

With motors: the hopeful German Bionic

"As things stand, the advantages of actuated systems cannot be exploited," he says with conviction - and would probably meet with opposition from competitor German Bionic: The Augsburg-based company relies on active exoskeletons. Here, artificial intelligence ensures that the various motors support the wearer's desired movements. At the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas, German Bionic received the "Best of Innovation" award for this in January. Series production for the new Apogee model is scheduled to start soon. "However, our power suits are already being used across industries and on a regular basis, including by international logistics companies such as Dachser, Fiege and DPD," the company said.

Whether active or passive variants will prevail is an open question. In Germany, Urs Schneider of the Fraunhofer IPA Institute is conducting research on so-called "biomechatronic systems. The medical scientist also raves about the opportunities and expects many innovations in the next two to three years, especially in active systems. "The possible applications will increase dramatically as a result," he says, emphasizing that the exoskeletons available now can already do quite a bit: "The devices we tested had a significantly positive effect on comfort, health and productivity."

One example is a study of welders in a German port: they often work overhead, and with the exoskeleton they all reported increased comfort at work. Measurements also confirmed a lower strain on the cardiovascular system, says Schneider. This not only made work more relaxed: "The cool thing is: We also had a 10 percent better welding result," says Schneider.

Companies make good experience

Many companies are excited about the new possibilities - but not all of them like to talk about the use of exoskeletons. After all, this is always associated with the admission that the work is physically demanding. DB Schenker is an exception, and Frank Stehn reports positive feedback from employees there, saying that measurements have confirmed this. "Employees are relieved by the support of exoskeletons and tire less quickly," says the health manager. "This represents a contribution to health prevention and occupational safety."

Passive exoskeletons in particular have currently reached a level of market maturity that will allow the technology to be widely used in the working world

Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BauA)

In Hanover, however, the stands of exoskeleton manufacturers were not among the largest, and some suppliers rely on the trade shows of individual industries. But overall, there is much to suggest that the devices are on the advance, in logistics as well as in the trades and increasingly also in production.

However, there are still reservations, as is evident at IG Metall: Dirk Neumann, head of the department for work design and health protection, confirms that exoskeletons can theoretically relieve employees. However, it will remain more important in the future to design workplaces and organization for people. The trade unionist also sees a great need for further research: "So far, there have been no conclusive studies on the effects and repercussions of such systems," Neumann reports.

BauA sees market maturity reached

Fraunhofer researcher Schneider disagrees with this only in part; he also sees open questions, particularly with regard to long-term studies that also include economic effects. "However, we already know from studies in the U.S. that illness costs and days of absence can decrease significantly through the use of exoskeletons."

The Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BauA) is not yet convinced. Here, too, they emphasize the need for further research. "Passive exoskeletons in particular have currently reached a level of market maturity that would allow the technology to be widely used in the world of work," explains the agency

Source: How good are exoskeletons? Workers as man-machines (

Tom Illauer

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