FIRST EXOSKELETON FOR INDUSTRY UNVEILED
Production workers often lift up to 10 metric tons of material a day. According to the Work Foundation Alliance (Lancaster, UK), 44 million workers in the EU suffer from work-related musculoskeletal disorders. Now researchers in the EU’s Robo-Mate project have developed an exoskeleton that makes loads up to ten times lighter to lift or carry. The project partners presented the first prototype at Fraunhofer IAO in Stuttgart on 12 June.
Effortlessly, a factory worker lifts a seat out of an old car. In a few nimble manoeuvres, he grips the 15 kg seat, hoists it out of its anchoring, and carries it to a station to join the other seats there. These fleet movements are made possible by an exoskeleton, a kind of external supporting frame that actively assists workers. Is this reality or science fiction?
Production and assembly work includes many physically demanding activities that still have to be carried out by humans. This applies to small-scale series and prototypes, where the assembly of each piece is so individual that no robots could be programmed for the task. But it is also true for all kinds of activities that are either too complex for robots, cannot be standardized, or simply require human flexibility. One example is the disassembly of motor vehicles: as every used car brought in for dismantling is different, the removal of each vehicle part – such as seats or batteries – is individual. These tasks put a great strain on workers, particularly when they are performed for eight hours at a stretch. Workers engaged in production and disassembly tasks often lift and carry several tonnes of material in a day. Damage to the spine and long-term health problems are an almost inevitable consequence. In addition to the worker’s personal suffering, this also creates high costs for the healthcare system. Meanwhile, employers face the disadvantages of lost productivity through sickness, early retirement and difficulty recruiting new staff.
The EU has set itself the goal of keeping manufacturing bases and jobs in Europe. But it will be necessary to make production conditions people-friendly in order to reduce the number of sick days and ensure that skilled workers remain fit and able to work over the long term.
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 a helper 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,” explains Prof. Dr. 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.
- Arm modules: 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 Prof. Dr. Carmen Constantinescu who heads the project at Fraunhofer IAO.
- Trunk module: 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.
- Leg modules: 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.
To find out where most assembly and disassembly problems lie and what the exoskeleton needs to be able to do, scientists at Fraunhofer IAO used software to simulate the work steps of various application partners in the project. They carefully considered the sequence of movements as well as which forces act on the body and how. This identified key steps where the strain on the body is very strong. Next, Constantinescu and her team of researchers simulated the corresponding work steps with the exoskeleton – which meant they could pinpoint the steps for which the exoskeleton was a useful tool and rule out those for which it was unsuitable. “Before now, nobody has managed to calculate the person and the surrounding exoskeleton as a single unit,” says Constantinescu, describing the particular challenge of this undertaking. But that was precisely what had to be done in order to develop the skeleton and evaluate the use cases.
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. To ensure this, safety experts from the participating companies and institutes are working on a series of requirements. 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 Prof. Dr. 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. It’s probably a bit scary for people,” says Prof. Wernher van der Venn, coordinator of the Robo-Mate project and professor at Zurich University of Applied Sciences. 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.
The basis for all work undertaken at the Fraunhofer IAO is a deep conviction that business success in a globalised arena is contingent on an ability to profitably leverage new high-tech potentials. In order to optimally exploit these opportunities, companies must be capable of developing and implementing customer and employee-oriented technologies faster than their competitors. Work organisation concepts must be simultaneously innovative and anthropocentric. A systematic design, in other words, is the outcome of pooled management and technical expertise. This holistic perspective when it comes to project processing ensures that equal consideration is given to commercial success, employees' interests and social consequences.
Through its close cooperation with the Institute for Human Factors and Technology Management (IAT) of the University of Stuttgart, Fraunhofer IAO unites basic university research with applied science and business practice.
Fraunhofer IAO, Juliane Segedi
+49 711 970 2343
This release was published on openPR.
Permanent link to this press release:
You can edit or delete your press release FIRST EXOSKELETON FOR INDUSTRY UNVEILED here
News-ID: 311388 • Views: 9011
More Releases from Fraunhofer IAO
Getting non-profit organizations fit for the digital transformation
Fraunhofer IAO develops and tests digital solutions for NPOs in its digital laboratory Most non-profit organizations (NPOs), such as associations, foundations and trade unions, have limited resources and scope for innovation that would allow them to exploit the potential of the digital transformation. In the “Digital laboratory for non-profit organizations 4.0” project funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), Fraunhofer IAO is collaborating with additional partners to
Catalyst for sustainable cities and regions
The Fraunhofer Morgenstadt initiative highlights strategic measures that aim to achieve broad implementation of digital and sustainable urban development Cities are some of the biggest emitters of CO2 – and that makes them a powerful lever in the fight against global warming. The team behind the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft’s Morgenstadt initiative recently published a position paper that aims to help German municipalities fast-track the implementation of sustainable urban development and digitalization. The goal
Ambient factors in workplace design: How the setting influences our work
A study conducted by Fraunhofer IAO examines how different ambient factors affect the work environment. What does it take to design a space that allows people to work creatively, with laser-like focus and a minimum of stress? In a new meta study entitled "Environmental Psychology for a New World of Work", Fraunhofer IAO has presented a systematic synopsis of the results of various empirical studies that explore the effect and design
Envisioning tomorrow’s transportation in Germany and the USA
2049: Zeitreise Mobilität – Fraunhofer IAO and HR bring the future to life with VR Aug 1, 2019 Scientists, businesses, and policymakers worldwide are striving toward sustainable transportation solutions that will transform urban life. Fraunhofer IAO and Hessischer Rundfunk (HR), a German regional broadcaster, have joined forces in a cross-media project to envision the future of urban transportation in both countries. Part of Deutschlandjahr USA (an initiative to promote German-American friendship), this
More Releases for Stuttgart
Smart data analysis for transport in Stuttgart
Fraunhofer IAO confirms the potential of mobile network data for transport planning The overburdening of city transport systems is becoming an increasing challenge. But before cities can take concrete action, they need to gather precise traffic data. This is often very time consuming and expensive. A study by the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO in cooperation with Telefónica NEXT and the data analysis specialist Teralytics found that mobile network data
Trebing + Himstedt opening Stuttgart Location
SAP MES expert now with a location in Southern Germany Schwerin, April 9th - Trebing + Himstedt, SAP MES expert for consulting, implementation and licensing of SAP solutions in the production environment, is now even more accessible for Southern Germany with its own location in Stuttgart. In order to better serve its customers in Southern Germany and to react with even greater agility, the SAP consultancy for manufacturing companies has opened
City of Stuttgart becomes reality lab
Research project on new forms of knowledge transfer and civic participation Starting in January 2015, several University of Stuttgart research institutes will be investigating new forms of knowledge transfer in the applied research project “Future City Lab_Stuttgart: Reality Lab for Sustainable Mobility Culture.” It is planned to run for at least three years. The innovative “reality lab” research format is designed to make it easier to link scientific findings with policy
Tenth anniversary for Stuttgart Software Technology Forum
Contributions from users and experts shed light on current challenges in the IT sector The Stuttgart Software Technology Forum (SSF) has long been a fixture in the diaries of IT managers, and this year will be the tenth such event. On October 14 and 15, 2014, the SSF, conceived by users for users, will focus on the topics of master data management and information quality, IT and data integration, and enterprise
A slice of the Orient in Stuttgart
Fraunhofer experts help get the YAZ restaurant concept off to a successful start in Stuttgart Food, glorious food. Not only must it taste good, but the service has to be right, too. And here’s a winning recipe: Before opening the doors of its flagship restaurant in Stuttgart in September 2013, the YAZ Company put a test version through its paces – in collaboration with service engineering experts from Fraunhofer IAO. YAZ is
VITRONIC at Post-Expo in Stuttgart 2011
Camera-based Auto-ID systems for highest read rates and more efficiency Wiesbaden, 25th July 2011 – At Post-Expo in Stuttgart from 27th to 29th September 2011, VITRONIC will be presenting high-capacity camera-based systems for the identification of packages. VITRONIC’s Auto-ID systems recognize, analyze and evaluate all relevant information from barcodes, 2-D codes and characters (OCR) - also many different code types in one image (multi-code reading). Furthermore, important additional information such as the