An interview with Dr. Urs Schneider, head of the "Medical and Bioproduction Technology" department at Fraunhofer IPA
Workers using robotic suits to help with their job are no longer unusual and have become a common sight in many companies. Even though exoskeletons are still part of a relatively new industry, it’s nearly impossible to imagine life in many fields and industrial applications without their latest developments. We talked with Dr. Urs Schneider, head of the "Medical and Bioproduction Technology" department at Fraunhofer IPA, about the status quo of the technology and evidence, but also ventured a look into the future.
Whether young or old – exoskeletons relieve employees with different physical conditions and keep them healthy in the long term. This is also confirmed by research.
Dr. Schneider, how are exoskeletons used in industrial applications to prevent work-related injuries?
Dr. Urs Schneider: Exoskeletons are used in intralogistics and transport logistics to provide back support for heavy lifting, overhead work on assembly lines, in maintenance, in the construction industry or in welding jobs, for example.
Can this structure also benefit younger, fit employees?
Schneider: We presume that various types of back pain or shoulder problems and similar injuries we see in middle age likely originated between the ages of 16 and 20. When it comes to heavy work activities that are known to cause injuries, the use of exoskeletons as primary prevention for young adults is a sensible step.
Dr. Urs Schneider, head of the "Medical and Bioproduction Technology" department at Fraunhofer IPA
What types of evidence show the effectiveness of exoskeleton use in industrial settings?
Schneider: Both Toyota USA and Ford USA conducted their own separate studies over several years that showed reduced workplace injury rates and subsequent lower costs due to lower sickness absence rates on specific production lines thanks to the use of exoskeletons.
In 2021 and 2022, our Exoworkathlon study included nearly 90 workers and showed how working with preventive exoskeletons provides significant relief with physically demanding work activities based on subjective feedback.
In 2022, we were also able to measure and publish the significant reduction of cardiovascular load on over 40 welders who wore passive shoulder exoskeletons. What’s more, the quality of the weld seam improved. Welding is static work that is very demanding on fine motor skills. Shoulder exoskeletons can reduce the gross forces on the respective areas of the body in this setting.
Monotonous overhead work such as automotive assembly can also benefit from exoskeleton support.
Are there current challenges when it comes to exoskeleton integration in industrial settings?
Schneider: The exoskeleton sector is still new and tries hard to meet the different demands and measure up to various activities and tasks. However, I would like to point out that in the case of physical activities with lots of variation and no monotonous phases, there might be limitations to comfort, acceptance, and perceived benefit of the system.
What does the future hold for industrial exoskeletons?
Schneider: I see incredible potential of exoskeleton robots in many fields: both in terms of active systems that are driven by a separate power source and as it pertains to passive systems that feature a spring mechanism. The same applies to textile-based and hybrid systems. These tools are becoming increasingly customized and more lightweight as an adaptive support technology.