Industrial applications of bionic exoskeletons - Bionic 4.0

The way we will produce in the future is changing radically. Topics such as robotics and sensor technology are already known variables in the context of digitization and IoT (Internet of Things). Bionic exoskeletons complete the range of modern production support by means of man-machine communication.

Ludmilla Parsyak © Fraunhofer IAO

The term “exoskeleton” has its roots in the ancient Greek language. “Exo” can be translated as “outer” or “outside” so that the compound word can be translated as “outer skeleton.” These skeletons are found in nature in animals such as arthropods, in contrast to humans, who have what is known as an endoskeleton within their bodies. Bionic exoskeletons apply this concept to create mechanical structures that support parts of the body and support its movements.


Exoskeletons – natural models with well-known uses

Exoskeletons are an outstanding example of applied biology in the field of bionics, which uses efficient natural evolutions as models for technical developments. In this case, the specific biological model is the exoskeleton that is found in insects or crustaceans, in which the outer layers of the skin harden to form a kind of armour that protects the internal organs from outside influences as well as providing support to the internal parts of the body. Changes in the chemical composition mean that both hard and flexible parts can be deliberately formed, enabling both protection and freedom of movement.

The aim of the bionic exoskeleton is to achieve an additional, supportive effect or to influence particular movements. Medical orthoses are a widespread example of successfully used exoskeletons in everyday life; for example, neck braces that can prevent potentially harmful head movements by holding the head in place. Meanwhile, other exoskeletons can treat deformities or degenerative conditions; in this case, they can support the muscles and bones that are otherwise unable to perform their functions. Scoliosis is treated with special corsets that can prevent progressive, degenerative curvature of the spine by applying targeted pressure. In general, medical applications of exoskeletons involve supporting, fixing, guiding or sedating parts of the body.


Industrial applications of exoskeletons

Industrial exoskeletons go one step further for example, they are designed to detect movements initiated by their wearers to provide additional strength. The idea of boosting human labour and abilities by supporting and strengthening them with a mechanical exoskeleton is nothing new. As far back as the mid-twentieth century, engineers were fascinated by the attempt to create a functioning symbiosis of the human brain as a control unit and mechanical strength to perform work. General Electric made a first attempt at providing a solution in the 1960s. The exoskeleton, known as the "Hardiman", was intended to enable a person to lift loads 25 times higher as without it effortlessly. However, due to the exoskeletons’ weight, power consumption and stability issues, the project had to be cancelled before it could get beyond the prototype stage. However, the idea lived on – and is implemented more successfully in modern exoskeletons.


New exoskeletons simplify work steps

New exoskeletons simplify work steps - Ludmilla Parsyak © Fraunhofer IAO

Exoskeletons differ from robots in the way that they are controlled: robots perform a task independently. In contrast to this, exoskeletons only operate if a human puts them on, fulfilling an important niche in modern industry: physically demanding tasks that, due to their complexity, cannot be automated, and which must, therefore, be performed by a human. Tasks of this nature are commonplace in assembly and logistics fields. For example, at BMW, Ford and General Motors,  exoskeletons are already deployed to make it easier to undertake physically demanding overhead assembly tasks. The market has a great deal of potential that spans multiple industries: incorrect movements and sustained, unsuitable working positions have long-term, damaging effects on the musculoskeletal system and can therefore lead to chronic conditions and long-term absences from work. The “Chairless Chair” made by the Swiss manufacturer, Noonee, is an exoskeleton for industrial workers that is worn around the legs. It can be stiffened to create a sitting position, thereby taking away the strain that assembly workers would otherwise experience. Initial tests at automotive manufacturers have enjoyed overwhelmingly positive feedback.


 
 


There are high hopes for exoskeletons across all industries. They should make it possible to carry out physical activities in a gentle and energy-saving manner. Moreover, they should extend the wearer’s physical limits: once the machine recognises a particular motion, it can support the motion by applying additional strength. This means that even people with less physical strength of their own can move large loads with little effort. Depending on equipment that is available, more complex or even entirely new processes are conceivable. Digital components such as the head-up displays or eye tracking used in the “Robo-Mate” exoskeleton, developed as part of an EU project, will make it possible to implement previously unthinkable workflows. Another example are data gloves, which check, for example, whether the wearer holds the correct component for the current work step.


In industry, exoskeletons help prevent incorrect movements and support the skeletal muscles.

Relief and support in daily work - Ludmilla Parsyak © Fraunhofer IAO

Alongside all the positive developments that exoskeletons have already enabled, or which they will facilitate in the near future, the risks associated with their use should not be overlooked. For instance, exoskeletons represent an additional risk in the event of falls or similar accidents, if they restrict freedom of movement or prevent wearers from rapidly regaining traction. A risk assessment of the working environment is therefore recommended before deploying exoskeletons. Potential failures or malfunctions pose a further danger: if the exoskeleton turns its strength on the wearer, serious injuries could result. Here the responsibility lies with the developers, who must equip the suits with appropriate safety measures. Furthermore, there is evidence that if an exoskeleton is worn permanently, there is a risk of muscle breakdown or comparable symptoms of underexertion. Here it must be ensured that the assistance of the exoskeletons remains within a precisely defined framework that does not result in permanent damage.


The future of exoskeletons

Tests of exoskeletons in practice to date have impressively demonstrated their potential in all branches of industry. Some forecasts predict a market with a total value of $4.5 billion US. Exoskeletons will therefore be an important component of automated production and one step torwards industry 4.0 to change everyday working life in areas of demanding physical activities for the better. Wearing an exoskeleton, and supported by collaborative robots future workers will enjoy optimal support at all stages of their work.

In addition to the wide range of industrial applications, exoskeletons are also developed for medical and military use. Military exoskeletons are a type of modern armor designed to make soldiers faster and more enduring in combat, while at the same time serving as a protective suit and weapon. Medical exoskeletons promise new, revolutionary therapeutic approaches. It is hoped, for example, that they will accelerate rehabilitation by processing the wearer's nerve signals and supporting the targeted movement until the body can take on the full load again.

In all areas of application, the powered exoskeletons are a technique that will take human abilities to a whole new level. ARTS always tries to help shape technical innovations in order to give its customers a lasting success. Within the scope of our service area production and industrial support services, we support our customers with concepts about man-machine communication.


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