Humans and machines: strong and healthy together

The German exoskeleton “Bionic CRAY X” has gone into series production. It relieves workers engaged in physically strenuous activities. The innovative human-machine system not only reduces sickness-related absenteeism, it also creates jobs for which age is not an issue in the context of demographic change.
Quickly slip on a suit – and the worker becomes a robot, or at least a superhuman? “That’s not our goal,” said Dr. Peter Heiligensetzer. He is CEO of German Bionic Systems, headquartered in Augsburg, which claims to be the first German manufacturer to develop and manufacture exoskeletons for use in industrial production. These are human-machine systems that combine human intelligence with machine power by supporting or amplifying the wearer’s movements during strenuous activities. “Rather than creating superhumans for production, our exoskeletons are intended to leverage physical ergonomics to protect employees against making harmful movements that can lead to diseases of the musculoskeletal system in the medium and long term.”

According to the Dortmund Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, muscular and skeletal disorders, MSE for short, are responsible for at least 23 percent of all sick leave days taken in Germany. They result in an estimated gross value added loss of 17 billion euros per year. The main causes of MSD are physical strain during lifting and carrying at work, resulting in damage to muscles and ligaments as well as to bones and cartilage. The figures appear even more dramatic against the background of an aging population and already noticeable shortage of skilled workers in production. While in many cases, assistive equipment such as trucks or cranes could improve the situation of workers, in practice, such equipment often proves to be too inflexible or expensive.

MAKES HARD PHYSICAL WORK SUCH AS IN LOGISTICS, BETTER FOR HEALTH AND SMARTER: THE EXOSKELETON COMBINES HUMAN INTELLIGENCE WITH MACHINE POWER WITHOUT TURNING THE WEARER INTO A ROBOT. THE EXOSKELETON “BIONIC CRAY X” CAN ALSO BE USED WITH SMARTWATCH APPLICATIONS.
PETER HEILIGENSETZER, CEO OF GERMAN BIONIC SYSTEMS: “RATHER THAN CREATING SUPERHUMANS FOR PRODUCTION, WE AIM TO LEVERAGE PHYSICAL ERGONOMICS TO PROTECT HUMANS AGAINST HARMFUL MOVEMENTS.”
The idea is thus to use exoskeletons, especially in situations where it is not feasible to replace human labor by automation or robotic systems. These include certain work processes in industrial production, for example, in the automotive industry, as well as physically heavy work in construction, logistics and nursing professions: “In addition to reducing the cost of healthcare while increasing productivity, this technology has the potential to address another pressing issue in our society,” Heiligensetzer is convinced. “Against the background of demographic change and the forecast shortage of skilled workers in Germany, exoskeletons enable the creation of age-independent jobs.”

After six years of development work and a successfully completed test program in several large industrial companies, German Bionic Systems has now launched mass production of its exoskeleton. The “Bionic CRAY X” model was designed in close collaboration with work ergonomists and is mainly intended to reduce the compression pressure in the lower back area when it comes to lifting heavy loads. Wearing comfort plays a central role in acceptance of new technology for human-robot cooperation, said Heiligensetzer: “Among other things, our development work in the last months has therefore focused on further miniaturizing components and using a lighter, more powerful battery.” The “Bionic CRAY X” uses pioneering micromechanical components and an ergonomic, ultralight wearing system, allowing the wearer to easily pick up and set down even heavy components from non-ergonomic positions.

German Bionic Systems aims to leverage the new technology to put people at the center of Industry 4.0: “Our labor world is far from having all work carried out by robots.” Most decision makers have now realized that not every kind of human work can feasibly be fully automated or robotized,” emphasized Heiligensetzer. In an effort to promote research into intelligent human-machine and artificial intelligence systems, German Bionic is currently developing a software platform based on open-source technology and open standards. In the future, sensory data will be collected, analyzed, anonymized and made freely available for research purposes. The market is big after all: according to a study by the US market research institute BIS Research, global demand for wearable robotics is expected to rise to $ 4.65 billion by 2026.

Text by Behrend Oldenburg
Photographs: German Bionic Systems GmbH

Click here to go to the study by BIS Research on the “Global Wearable Robotic Exoskeleton Market”:
www.bisresearch.com