I’ve only recently seen the first Star Wars film from 1977. And once again, I was thrilled by the great special effects, which, completely justifiably, set standards over 40 years ago. The technologies of the future – spaceships, humanoid robots etc., also impress with the immense attention to detail. Even back then, they gave rise to the question of whether the technologies will be a reality some day. With some innovations that have been launched on the market in the past few years, we have to ask ourselves whether this is still science fiction or a reality. For example, the so-called exoskeleton – a kind of robot suit intended to make heavy work easier. It sounds like science fiction, but is already in use and could also take off in automotive workshops in a few years.
But what actually is an exoskeleton? According to Wikipedia, it is an “outer support structure for an organism” which can be found in the animal world. “By contrast, artificial mechanical exoskeletons are mechanical structures that are worn by the human body and can be removed relatively easily.” They support and amplify the movements of their wearer, by e.g. by powering the joints of the exoskeleton via servo motors.
The automotive industry has been testing exoskeletons for years
For a few years, the automotive industry has been experimenting with these helpers as robotic suits: BMW, for example, has been using exoskeletons in production since 2017. These exoskeleton vests are worn in a similar way to a backpack on the upper part and strengthen the movement of the upper arms when carrying out strenuous tasks. The systems used by BMW are primarily active exoskeleton systems with their own drive that act as power amplifiers and are operated either electrically, pneumatic or hydraulically.
Passive and active systems
Employees at Audi are also testing the artificial aid structures in Ingolstadt. Exoskeletons are used in particular for activities in the overhead area, at selected workstations in production. In contrast to BMW, Audi relies on passive systems. They do not require any power supply and function purely mechanically, i.e. supporting or using spring or cable systems.
Exoskeletons have also reached the workshop sector. Active systems have already been used at the BMW subsidiary in Darmstadt: During the tyre change season, the robotics specialist “German Bionic” was able to relieve the lower back area when lifting from unergonomic positions by up to 25 kg.
Exoskeletons in the automotive workshop
For work in automotive workshops, active systems are not likely to be an option for cost reasons alone. For overhead work and particularly strenuous carrying work, passive exoskeletons could also reduce physical stress and protect the musculoskeletal system. By using systems, for example.
These systems take part of the arm weight and transfer the load to the hips via supporting structures. This relieves the strain on the shoulders.
Passive systems are already available at low prices in the low three-digit Euro range. Given the fact that back complaints are a top cause of sickness-related absences from work every year, this is an investment that has the potential to pay for itself quickly.
However, experience in the automotive industry shows that not every employee feels comfortable with the exoskeleton. More than a few employees complained of limited freedom of movement and did not perceive the device as an aid.
“Incorrect expectations are often placed on exoskeletons”, says Ulrich Glitsch from the Institute for Health and Safety at the National Association of Statutory Health Insurance speaking to the “Deutschen-Handwerks-Zeitung“. After all, exoskeletons can only support the weakest link in a chain. Conveyor systems, for example, only help when lifting loads. For overhead work, shoulder-supporting systems are required.
Help or not?
According to Ulrich Glitsch, exoskeletons are particularly suitable for monotonous work where heavy loads have to be lifted and moved. In logistics, for example. For trade work with different, often complex movement sequences on one working day, things are more complicated. In this case, operators must determine exactly how large the proportion of work is in which the exoskeleton really provides a real help.