First exoskeleton for use by industrial workers is unveiled in Europe
14 June 2015
International team of researchers working on the EU’s Robo-Mate project have developed an exoskeleton that makes loads up to ten times lighter to lift or carry.
As well as protecting workers’ backs and supporting their posture, the Robo-Mate exoskeleton also helps them to lift heavy objects. By means of motors and sensors, it reduces the effective load people have to bear to a fraction of the actual load while also preventing postural damage.
Although most people will have seen exoskeletons only in science fiction and superhero movies, there are actually two established fields of application for the technology: in the military and in medical rehabilitation. To date, however, no exoskeleton has been developed for use in manufacturing.
This was precisely the goal that the partners in the EU’s Robo-Mate project set themselves. Since the end of 2013, twelve research institutes and companies in seven European countries have been working together to develop one for production workers.
Now the first Robo-Mate prototype is ready; it was presented at Fraunhofer IAO in Stuttgart on 12 June. “Our exoskeleton prototype consists of modules for the arms, the trunk of the body and the legs,” Says Professor Wernher van de Venn, coordinator of the Robo-Mate project and head of the Institute of Mechatronic Systems at Zurich University of Applied Sciences in Switzerland.
The modules for the arms are attached to the upper and lower arms. They actively support workers when lifting heavy loads: using motors, they deliver an up to tenfold reduction in the force acting on workers when lifting an object. “A car seat weighing 15 kilograms feels like 1.5 kilograms when workers lift it with the help of the exoskeleton,” says Professor Carmen Constantinescu who heads the project at Fraunhofer IAO.
The trunk module is designed principally to stabilise and protect the back and spinal column. It helps workers to keep their torso straight when carrying out lifting and bending tasks, protecting the spine from twisting and slipped discs.
The exoskeleton supports the legs using two modules that stabilise the inner thighs from the trunk module. When workers carry out tasks in a squatting position, which can put the thighs under great strain, the leg modules stiffen and form a kind of seat, so that workers do not have to exert any additional strength.
Plenty of research is still needed before the Robo-Mate exoskeleton can become an everyday presence in European factories. One task is to make the exoskeleton and its use safe for its users and their environment. Another issue is the matter of acceptance: “The only way this kind of support can be successful is if workers themselves accept the technology,” says Professor Michiel de Looze, partner for human-robot interaction at TNO, the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research TNO.
Identifying ways of bringing production workers on side when introducing the technology was part of the project’s remit. Design was another part: “The prototype is functional, but its appearance is still off-putting – you can see all the technology and the wires," says Professor Wernher van der Venn, coordinator of the Robo-Mate project and professor at Zurich University of Applied Sciences. "It’s probably a bit scary for people."
For this reason, designers are developing a casing that is functional yet also gives workers the impression it is there to help them: “We’re not looking to make superheroes. We want to develop a helper that supports production workers in their everyday work and keeps them healthy,” says Dr Leonard O'Sullivan, specialist in ergonomics and product design at the University of Limerick in Ireland.