The potential impact of exoskeletons

In this edition of Beyond Bax, we speak to TNO scientist and professor of production ergonomics at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Dr. Michiel de Looze. His research focuses on human-assistive technology and its impact on workload, job quality, performance and health. For around eight years, he has been working in the field of exoskeletons – from lab research on optimising sensing and control aspects of exoskeletons to more practice-oriented studies for exoskeleton implementation.

How did you get involved in exoskeleton research?

MDL. I have been working in the field of ergonomics for over thirty years now, as a researcher at TNO (the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research) and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Now, my focus is on technologies that can support people in manual labour, such as augmented reality, collaborative robots and exoskeletons.

My involvement in exoskeleton research and development started around eight years ago. From the notion that a lot of heavy work situations in many industrial sectors persist and cannot be solved by ‘traditional ergonomics’, we started the European project RoboMate to develop a sensorized and motorized exoskeleton that could be used in manufacturing and logistics. At that time, this was one of the first attempts to develop an active (motorized) exoskeleton for real-life applications.

Exoskeletons originally came from the medical industry, what has been the biggest hurdle in making them relevant for other industries?

Overhead working on vehicle wearing Ottobock exoskeleton
© Ottobock exoskeleton used for overhead working

MDL. For industrial exoskeletons, it is important that they do what they are supposed to do, namely reducing the biomechanical load on the human body at work. At the same time, it is important to limit any negative side effects that the wearing of an exoskeleton at work might have – the exoskeleton should not be too heavy, nor too large, should not lead to discomfort in any regions of the body, should not hinder any activity, should not limit movement speed, and so on. Otherwise, the exoskeleton will not be accepted by workers and companies. This might be different for medical exoskeletons, where some amount of discomfort or speed limitation is not such a hindrance; for instance, if someone can only walk or get up from a chair with the help of an exoskeleton.   

Making exoskeletons for industry effective in reducing workload while also being accepted by industry has been a big challenge, and still is for various devices.

What is the real value of exoskeletons for manufacturing today?

MDL. In the manufacturing industry, there are still many workers that are exposed daily to heavy work (materials handling, overhead work, (trunk-) bent work), despite the ongoing trends of mechanization and robotization. This means high physical loads on workers’ bodies, leading to discomfort and fatigue. This makes jobs unattractive, which in turn makes it difficult for companies to hire new personnel. Moreover, fatigue at work might limit productivity. In the long run, heavy work may lead to injury (mainly in the lower back and the shoulder region), and consequently, increased sickness and disability rates.

Various back-support and arm-support exoskeletons have been proven to be effective in reducing workload, thereby limiting the development of discomfort and fatigue in specific regions of the body. This will positively influence the working conditions for the individual and will improve job attractiveness.

Although workload reduction might reduce the risk of developing injuries, there is no scientific evidence yet that injury, sickness and disability rates would really drop where exoskeletons are used. This would actually require a large long-term study including hundreds of people distributed across an experimental and control group. Such a study has not been performed yet.

Which are the most relevant uses for exoskeletons in this industry?

MDL. In solving the heavy work problem, the first strategy would be to eliminate or reduce the load by more common ergonomics: the re-design of the workstation, the use of mechanical aids, the re-organisation of tasks and the allocation of tasks to machines or robots. In case these do not work, one may look at exoskeletons.

Exoskeletons can be useful specifically when the worker is mobile and heavy work activities are performed in different locations. Such activities may include: prolonged work with a bent back, handling of heavy materials, prolonged holding of equipment, and prolonged or frequent arm elevation (overhead work).

Michiel says exoskeletons can be useful specifically when the worker is mobile and heavy work-related activities are performed in different locations - e.g. overhead work.

What is Europe’s key strength in exoskeleton development and implementation?

MDL. There is a long tradition of industrial ergonomics in Europe which goes back to the early 70s. Since then, attention on ‘good working conditions ‘or ‘job quality’ has persisted at a reasonable level in policymakers, governments, sector organisations and companies. This might be helpful for the testing and implementation of exoskeletons in industry.

Regarding the development of exoskeletons, we see many SMEs involved in this area (besides some bigger companies) in various European countries (e.g. Italy, France, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands). These SMEs, often with a strong relationship with a university, put lots of effort in developing new devices and applications and to continuously improve them.

What are some other industries that haven’t yet used exoskeletons but would greatly benefit from them?

EXSKALLERATE project logo

MDL. As well as manufacturing, there are various sectors that could also benefit from exoskeletons, e.g. maintenance, agriculture, healthcare, logistics, and construction. I have just finished a successful study in the construction sector on the effectiveness and acceptance of an arm support exoskeleton for plasterers.

I am also involved in a new European initiative – EXSKALLERATE – which aims to accelerate the adoption of exoskeletons in construction and manufacturing. Here we are building a strong ecosystem of SMEs (end users), exoskeleton developers, researchers, and policy-makers across Europe. 

We aim to define and eliminate the barriers to the further adoption of exoskeletons, through dynamic stakeholder workshops, lab tests and field studies. We welcome any relevant stakeholders to get involved in this innovative research over the next 3+ years!

What does the future of exoskeleton application look like?
(soft exo-suits perhaps?)

MDL. Several passive exoskeletons (using a spring-mechanism instead of sensors and motors) are finding their way into practice. Active exoskeletons (with sensors and motors) are potentially more effective and specifically more adaptive in order to deal with variations in work activities. But generally these need improvements, for instance in its sensor-based control mechanism. On the other hand, although soft exoskeletons are generally more comfortable to wear, there is a challenge to make them sufficiently powerful.

Michiel says within 3-6 years, it could become quite common to see exoskeletons in which passive, active and soft elements are combined in specific jobs to reduce the impact of heavy physical loads on workers.

With all this in mind, I think within 3-6 years, it could become quite common to see exoskeletons in which passive, active and soft elements are combined in specific jobs to reduce the impact of heavy physical loads on workers.

Further info

At Bax & Company, we’re lucky enough to work with experts in emerging and existing fields from around the world. Beyond Bax is an opportunity for us to share some of their knowledge with you.

If you have any suggestions or further questions, you can contact Michiel, or a member of the Bax & Company team:

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