Exoskeletons are wearable suits that use electricity, batteries, compressed air, springs or weight distribution to stabilise and relieve the human body during heavy work and repetitive movements. A distinction is made between active exoskeletons, which are powered by a source of electricity, and passive exoskeletons, which have a spring system or distribute the weight load in some other way.
Although the first thing that comes to mind might be giant human-controlled machines or metallic robotic suits that can fly, these are mostly lightweight, body-hugging devices. Exoskeletons were originally developed for the rehabilitation of people with limited mobility and for the military. But today's applications are wide-ranging.
The main task of exoskeletons is to prevent musculoskeletal disorders. According to the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health1, these are the most frequent cause of sick leave and incapacity to work in Germany. Particularly in the retail, automotive and warehouse logistics sectors, exoskeletons can therefore reduce downtime and help ensure that qualified employees can work healthier for longer.
Pneumatic gloves can support power transmission as an aid for fine motor tasks, for example in small parts warehouses. Other exoskeletons allow workers to sit without a chair. But probably the most widespread model are the backpack-like suits that protect the back and lower lumbar vertebrae when lifting or carrying heavy objects and transfer the weight via the hips, for example.
Some manufacturers' exoskeletons can lift up to 25 kilograms - and thus also reduce heavier loads. With smaller packages, this makes carrying them very easy. Larger loads at least become lighter. Nevertheless, the wearer still has to use the muscle power of their own arms.
In logistics, the exoskeleton is primarily used as a lifting aid. Goods management in the warehouse is a workplace that is difficult to automate. Here, goods of the most varied shapes and sizes are frequently moved, sometimes in small quantities. In addition, picking, quality control and loading require a high degree of concentration and small-scale work. At the same time, monotonous or stressful postures lead to rapid fatigue of the employees.
This is why several logistics service providers are already testing exoskeletons in this area as a physical support, preventive measure and to reduce safety risks. "The health of our qualified employees is our most valuable asset," emphasises Francois-Xavier Goussard, Head of Methods and Innovations in France at the Rhenus Group. The globally operating logistics service provider tested exoskeletons as lifting aids in 2020 at a warehouse location in the French port of Valenciennes. "We had been planning to test exoskeletons as support for our order pickers and in the loading area for some time. Due to the Corona pandemic and the tightened safety conditions for our employees, we have specifically tested the exoskeleton so that we can maintain the minimum distance in the workplace."
Read the full press release on the exoskeleton test here!
Exoskeletons offer many advantages for use in logistics. But there are also risks, such as incorrect handling and the resulting accidents at work. In addition, exoskeletons are not yet ready for series production and sometimes have a high price. "After our initial test, we decided to first illuminate and further develop the entire process at the picking station within the warehouse as well as during truck loading," reports Goussard. "Then we will consider the extended test and the purchase of exoskeletons. For us, though, implementing exoskeletons in our warehouse is a distinct possibility."
In other sectors, such as the automotive industry, exoskeletons are already part of the personal protective equipment of some US car manufacturers. But studies, such as that of the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics IML2, see the need to adapt wearing comfort and simplified handling by the user in addition to the potential for static activities.
And what happens next? In a few years, will robotic suits do the job without human pilots at all? "I wouldn't go that far," says Goussard. "The exoskeleton helps with heavy loads, but the essence of the tasks is our employees' combination skills and knowledge of which package has to be placed, assembled and loaded how, where and in what way. We are still a long way from a machine being able to do that to the same extent as an experienced warehouse worker."
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