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The government has recognized the problem, and legislated accordingly. A so-called Load Handling Regulation has been introduced in Germany. It is designed to protect employees in the workplace, but does not define legal limits for exposure to stress. The law simply states that such limits should be set for each individual worker as appropriate, and Dr. Peter Heiligensetzer of German Bionic Systems knows exactly what that means in practice: “Employees would rather lift heavy goods by themselves, without recourse to complicated lifting tackle, in order to save time – and make time for an extra cigarette break.“ His wearable robot, the Cray X exoskeleton, is designed to give workers the best of both worlds: stress-free lifting that also saves them time. “The system reduces compression forces in the lower back area,” says Heiligensetzer, summarizing the main benefit in a single sentence. It sounds simple enough, but it wasn’t developed overnight.

“We react quickly to customer demands – for example, by changing the materials we use. Most of our inquiries at present come from production and logistics.”

Heiligensetzer and his team, consisting of sociologists, physiotherapists, experts in workplace ergonomics and mechanical engineers, have been working on the product for the last six years – initially as part of an EU research project, in collaboration with Fiat and a number of automotive parts suppliers, then as a separate business, German Bionic Systems, backed by private investors. “When I was working for Kuka, I did a lot of thinking about exoskeletons”, explains the trained mechanical engineer, who founded the company in 2017. “We are now working towards mass production,” says Heiligensetzer, whose previous business experience was in the planning and realization of automation systems.

But even at this stage, the first industrial companies are already buying the exoskeleton, which is equipped with tiny electric motors, weighs 7.9 kilos, offers 15 kilos of load support, and can operate for eight hours on standard cordless drill batteries. “The weight is supported on the hips, just like a hiking rucksack. The idea is to relieve the load on the back and shoulders,” adds Heiligensetzer.

He unveiled his idea for the first time at an industry conference in the autumn of 2016. It got an enthusiastic reception from his audience. Cray X supports its users in two modes, which are controlled by a smart watch. Heiligensetzer explains: “The first mode is for order-picking in a forced or awkward position. The exoskeleton supports people who have to work in a fixed position bent over forwards.” The user can “let go” and allow the exoskeleton to do the work of supporting the back, which relieves the pressure on the back muscles. The second mode is designed to safeguard the user against potentially damaging movements when the body is under excessive strain. The robot relieves the strain on the wearer’s lower back when lifting heavy objects by imitating and amplifying movements in an active-assistive capacity. An electromyographic (EMG) armband measures the muscle tension in the arm.

The International Federation of Robotics estimates that around 370 exoskeletons were sold in 2015. For 2019, the figure is expected to be 6,500. A study by BIS Research has projected a market volume of 4.65 billion US dollars by the year 2026. The main competition comes from Japan. Big names such as Hyundai and Panasonic are developing their own exoskeletons. And industry is already trying them out: workers at BMW and Audi wear the robot suits on the assembly line.

Heiligensetzer is keen to profit from the boom, with technology and flexibility as key selling points. “We react quickly to customer demands – for example, by changing the materials we use. Most of our inquiries at present come from production and logistics”, says the CEO of the company. But he also sees promising new markets for the future in the emergency services, nursing and the construction sector.