Health Exoskeletons: Easing the burden of heavy lifting

Introducing the Chairless Chair and the Exo-Jacket: it may sound like something out of Iron Man or some other action movie, but these systems are becoming a reality in some companies.

Tested at Hermes Einrichtungs Service: the Laevo exoskeleton eases the burden of transporting washing machines, televisions and sofas. (Photo: Hermes)

Exoskeletons help prevent musculoskeletal disorders that have an adverse effect on the health of many workers and cause millions of lost working days in Germany alone. In industries such as the automotive industry as well as in logistics companies, the use of these work aids is becoming increasingly common – and with it, a rapidly growing market is emerging.

In October 2017, lifting heavy pieces of furniture was easier than usual for the employees of Hermes Einrichtungs Services in Löhne. But that was not because they had been working out – it was thanks to a small but effective aid called Laevo, an exoskeleton that eased the burden for them when they carried washing machines, televisions and couches. “The Laevo exoskeleton is a passive system that uses a spring mechanism to relieve strain on the back muscles”, explains Nadia Uliana, director of project “Exoskeleton” at Hermes Einrichtungs Service. Two of these support structures were tested here last autumn – eight employees participated in the study, working both with and without support for extended periods of time. “They carried motion sensors in both cases, and everything was observed and analysed”, reports Uliana.

Combined use of exoskeletons and roller conveyors

Although the feedback from the employees was consistently positive, these systems are still not standard equipment: “We did notice significant relief with lifting, but the employees have to cover great distances here in the warehouse. That makes the exoskeleton more of a nuisance”, Uliana explains. However, a combined use of exoskeletons and roller conveyors might very well be a solution in Löhne. This variant will therefore soon be put to the test.

But Nadia Uliana does not believe that the first test was a failure. On the contrary, it is important to participate in studies in order to give feedback to manufacturers so that they can further improve their devices. “Even if we won’t be using this new technology immediately, we want to be at the forefront of this development. The health of our employees is something that is close to our hearts and as soon as new opportunities to protect their health arise, we want to know about them.”

154 million working days lost due to musculoskeletal disorders

This health burden is confirmed by figures from the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA). In transport and logistics professions, the sick leave rate was particularly high at six percent. In 2015, only four percent of employees insured with BKK, the German company health insurance fund, were unable to work due to health problems. Because they frequently do work that involves standing (80 percent of employees), lifting and carrying heavy loads (50 percent), employees in postal and logistics services more frequently suffer from musculoskeletal complaints. In 2016, these complaints caused 154 million lost working days in Germany. At 22.8 percent of all lost working days, this is the most common illness according to the BAuA. There was therefore a decrease of 30.4 billion euros in the overall gross value added.

A full body suit will most likely never see the light of day

Reason enough, therefore, for companies to get involved in this area despite the costs of exoskeletons still being high. These devices are largely being applied in automobile manufacture, with Audi already using several variants. “They have a lot of potential, especially where employees have to work overhead or lean forward to work on a car”, says Ralph Hensel, ergonomics expert in industrial engineering at Audi.

Due to technical reasons, it is often impossible to make improvements to the workplace itself: “It is, for instance, no longer possible to rotate the car once it reaches the end of the assembly process, because it has already been filled with liquids”, explains Hensel. “That is where an exoskeleton can, for example, assist in easing the burden on the person’s back while the work is being carried out.” Exoskeletons merely provide the employees with support. “They should not dominate the employee, and a full body suit will most likely never see the light of day”, says Hensel. “We are always looking specifically for areas of activity and employees whom these systems suit best.” Thus far, the feedback has been very positive.

Audi has also tested the Chairless Chair, a kind of scaffolding for the legs. As soon as the employee bends to a certain angle in a sitting position, the mechanism engages and he can then sit actively. This means that although there is no backrest, you can sit down, which is 65 percent less tiring than standing up, says Lars Schilling, CEO of Noonee, maker of the Chairless Chair: “The chair offers great relief wherever there are standing workstations that involve a regular change from standing to sitting.” The concept has been undergoing constant development in close cooperation with Audi and has now after two years been optimised to such an extent that the car manufacturer is expected to use it in up to ten workstations at its Neckarsulm site from this summer onwards. A subsequent roll-out is planned for Ingolstadt.

Active skeletons are heavier because of their motors

The car manufacturer also wants to test the active Exo-Jacket – unlike the passive supports of Laevo and Noonee, this device works with motors and, among other things, relieves the user’s arms during overhead work. To this end, two workstations were replicated at the Fraunhofer Institute for testing. Urs Schneider, who designed the Exo-Jacket with his team, feels that active skeletons offer even better assistance: “Cycling is easier than walking, but the e-bike makes it a whole lot easier still.” However, active exoskeletons are much heavier due to their built-in motors and batteries. “We decided on four motors at the elbows and shoulders, which amount to about ten kilos”, says Schneider.

Market expected to grow by 46 % annually

A spin-off from the institute is planned in order to produce the Exo-Jacket for commercial application. The development of what is still a young market for health-friendly work aids is showing promise. A February 2017 study by the research institute ABI Research predicts an annual growth of 46 percent by 2025 for the exoskeleton business. Worldwide sales of 1.9 billion dollars is to be expected by then (2018: 200 million dollars).

Peter Heiligensetzer also wants to share in this with his active skeleton German Bionic Cray X. Using two motors at hip level, up to 15 kilos can be lifted tirelessly and without damaging the lower back. “Your forward tilt is detected by sensors, which also measure muscle tension on the arm. When the person picks something up, the support system is activated and he is pulled up via backpack straps”, explains Heiligensetzer. According to him, this reduces muscle tension in the lower back by 40 percent. With the prototype finished six months prior, the product was launched at the end of 2017: “There are already numerous orders from the automotive industry as well as the logistics sector”, says Heiligensetzer. At 39,000 euros a piece, these exoskeletons are not a bargain – but using this new technology is likely to be cheaper than the current total cost of 17 billion euros production lost due to sick leave

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