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Exoskeletons: Tomorrow’s Ergonomic Tools

© Gorodenkoff – stock.adobe.com

Researchers study the impact of exoskeletons and soft suits on diverse pain points and risk zones.

Contributed By: Dr. Urs Schneider with Urban Daub, Verena Kopp and Axel Storz

The market for exoskeletons is growing. According to estimates published by market research institute Frost & Sullivan1, the market for industrial exoskeletons will reach an average annual growth rate in excess of 40% over the coming years and reach a market volume of over $400 million by 2025.

The world of these physical assistants has become very versatile. Diverse pain points and risk zones are relieved or supported by exoskeletons and soft suits. They focus on the two most relevant body zones suffering from pain caused by physical work: back and shoulders. Lightweight textile structures such as those provided by Hunic, but also passive exoskeleton systems such as by Laevo, OttoBock, Innophys, ErgoSante, and Auxivo relieve the lumbar spine during a variety of jobs. When it comes to active systems also with possibilities for data interfaces, one special provider standing out here is GermanBionics.

The good news: the diversity of solutions makes for substantially better adaptability/suitability to the wide and varied jobs in the skilled trades, small- and medium-sized companies and in major companies than only three years ago. There are also various passive exoskeletons available from OttoBock, Comau, Ergosante and Skelex for relieving the shoulders.

There is a high need for solutions for workers whose work environment cannot be improved by either technical modifications or organizational changes. This is why there are also a number of manufacturers worldwide with products for thumbs, wrists and elbows applying well-established orthotic care principles. Bioservo supports hand strength since hands are the weakest link in the chain for a number of heavy-duty activities.

WHAT IS GOING ON IN RESEARCH?

What are the long-term consequences/benefits of exoskeletons? This is challenging to assess. Intensive research is being done into new solutions to find an ever-better match between perceived support, wearing comfort and everyday flexibility.

Various studies have so far been able to demonstrate local relief in the target regions provided by exoskeletons by measuring muscle activity and acting forces. Therefore, it would be all the more important to read, analyze and discuss the laboriously compiled, large studies by Ford2 and Toyota3 in Germany. But for some unknown reason this is not being done. Both companies proved that they were able to reduce health-related costs by using exoskeletons.

EXOWORKATHLON® STUDY TO WATCH

In Exoworkathlon4 experiments, the research team from Fraunhofer IPA and Stuttgart University were able to demonstrate that the subjective relief due to meaningfully applied commercial exoskeletons was stated to exceed 20% in over 80 tests. This subjective relief is also reflected by the objectively measured muscle activity parameters. These are 20% lower in the back when wearing an assistive system. The performance physiology study of this team also reveals the significant circulatory relief experienced by over 50 welders using passive shoulder exoskeletons.

Physical relief can have a positive impact on concentration, too. This was demonstrated by Hamburg-based researchers studying construction workers in 2021. This is great news because it demonstrates exoskeletons could delay musculoskeletal disorders and improve the quality of life for manual laborers. What’s more, this also makes workers more productive – which is relevant in view of the prospect of increasing skilled labor shortages. Add to this the fact that a large proportion of serious occupational accidents go hand-in-hand with declining concentration. This means exoskeletons also serve as prevention.

And there is more exciting news: the quality of manually welded seams is improved by 10% with exoskeletons. This was proven in cooperation with the Welding Technology Test Centre Hamburg.

At so-called parcours, realistically simulated workstations, exoskeletons supporting the upper extremities and lower back are tested for their impact on work performance, wearers’ acceptance, subjectively perceived relief as well as job desirability. Involving over 100 study subjects so far, this is one of the largest ongoing, prospective exoskeleton studies. In fact, a live demonstration of various parcours was organized in 2023 at the A+A conference, simulating jobs involving heavy physical work, such as in logistics and assembly, with the help of young experts from the respective industries. Visitors had the opportunity to talk to exoskeleton manufacturers, users and scientists, to exchange ideas and share experiences.

EXOSKELETONS AND SECONDARY PREVENTION

Can industrial exoskeletons also be used to relieve existing back pain at work? Basically, the over 100 systems available on the market are designed for use by healthy workers for so-called primary prevention. Some systems are even restricted to healthy people, as explicitly indicated in their instructions. In Germany, the principle “Rehabilitation before Retirement” applies to workers of all ages. Therefore, the question arises whether in certain cases, workers can benefit from exoskeletons that reduce a local load. As this is a new question, we organized a symposium entitled “Tomorrow’s Professional Rehabilitation” at the Rehacare 2022 trade fair and discussed this topic with trade fair visitors. We will continue to follow up on this topic and discuss how these systems can also support those already suffering from physical ailments.

EXPERIENCE EXOSKELETONS AT TRADE SHOWS

Which exoskeletons exist? How do they perform in studies? Where can I watch work being done with exoskeletons? Where can I try them out at workplaces? Where is the expert congress on this topic? You can experience all of this at trade shows.

The world’s leading trade fair for safety, security and health at work is the A+A trade fair in Düsseldorf, Germany. The show is organized by Fraunhofer IPA and Stuttgart University IFF and the World Exoskeleton Association (WEARRA) with A+A and the BASI Congress. In 2023, the show’s “ExoPark” featured a large international joint stand with exoskeleton distributors, allowing participants to see and personally try out, many different systems on realistic job tasks. The tasks were jointly defined and implemented by Fraunhofer IPA, Stuttgart University IFF and manufacturers.

During the WearRAcon Europe Conference — held during A+A — experts and prominent end users from throughout Europe highlight market needs, specifications, ergonomics and the usability of exoskeletons. Many exoskeleton manufacturers also present their systems in lectures.

Dr. Urs Schneider is the Division Director and Department Head at Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing, Engineering and Automation (IPA), and contributed this article in collaboration with Urban Daub, Verena Kopp and Axel Storz. Save the date for A+A, and WearRA Con 2025, from November 4 – 7, 2025 in Düsseldorf, Germany: www.aplusa-online.com.

References:

1 https://tinyurl.com/626ycxpb

2 https://tinyurl.com/4rds6dun

3 https://tinyurl.com/3479mush

4 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10936367/

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