Exoskeletons in research and science

Despite automation in industry, recent years have shown that the physical workload for employees in many industries has not decreased. One of the most common work-related diseases is the so-called musculoskeletal disorder (MSD). One of the causes of MSD is overhead work. (see photo)

According to the German Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA), musculoskeletal disorders result in annual production loss of 17.2 billion Euros in Germany. Nevertheless, the Federal Institute sees great potential for industrial exoskeletons:

A central task is […] the classification and evaluation of now commercially available passive exoskeletons in the working environment. The goal must be to evaluate the practical use of these systems in the workplace. It is necessary to create approaches to identify preventive […] factors and thus enable a reliable evaluation and hence application of exoskeletons in the world of work.

Source: German Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

Studies on Ottobock Bionic Exoskeletons

The Ottobock Shoulder supports employees during strenuous activities in different industries, especially during overhead work. The exoskeleton is the subject of several simulated workplace studies to scientifically prove its effectiveness in reducing MSDs.

1. „Principle Study on Objective and Subjective Effects of a Passive Exoskeleton“ (Journal IEEE)

In this study, various physical, physiological and psychological parameters of 12 subjects are analyzed and compared while performing overhead tasks with and without the Paexo Shoulder exoskeleton. The assessment criteria used to evaluate the Paexo Shoulder measure both the objective and subjective effects on the users.

The study concludes, as one of its findings, using the Paexo Shoulder exoskeleton significantly reduces anterior deltoid muscle activation by 55%, oxygen consumption by 33%, and heart rate by 19% (objective evaluation criteria). This indicates that the Paexo Shoulder efficiently reduces physical stress and fatigue.

Subjective evaluation criteria included task performance and the potential change in the user’s range of motion while wearing the exoskeleton. The study shows that wearing the Paexo Shoulder feels natural and unrestricted and has neither positive nor negative effects on mere work performance. Overall, the researchers rate the Paexo Shoulder as a promising solution to reduce musculoskeletal disorders in the shoulder.

Study: Journal IEEE

2. Principle study on the effect of an industrial exoskeleton during overhead work (Journal Orthopädie Technik)

In this study, the Paexo Shoulder is objectively evaluated using metabolic and electromyographic parameters. Overhead work is simulated under laboratory conditions. The results of the simulation show that the user’s metabolic effort and the load on the shoulder region are significantly reduced. In particular, the deltoid muscle and the biceps brachii muscle show a significant reduction in terms of muscle fatigue when wearing the exoskeleton. The study also shows a reduction in the muscle fatigue value of the trapezius muscle, however, it is significantly lower than for the other two muscle parts.

Study: Journal Orthopädie Technik

3. « Assessing the efficiency of exoskeletons in physical strain reduction by biomechanical simulation with AnyBody Modeling System » (Cambridge University Press)

The study uses computer simulations to evaluate the Paexo Shoulder. The advanced biomechanical simulation software AnyBody technology calculates the impact of biomechanical effects on the human body’s musculoskeletal system when wearing the exoskeleton and without wearing the exoskeleton. This study, in particular, focuses on three biomechanical effects: muscle activity, joint reaction forces in the shoulder and arm area, and compression forces in the lumbar spine area.
The simulation results show that muscle activities and joint reaction forces were significantly reduced when wearing the Paexo Shoulders. For example, activities of the deltoid muscle in the shoulder were reduced by 54%, and forces on the glenohumeral joint (shoulder joint) were reduced by 87%.
The simulation results are then compared with study results from a laboratory experiment in which the Paexo Shoulder was also the research subject. (Results of the laboratory experiment of the study from the journal IEEE – see 1. „Principle Study on Objective and Subjective Effects of a Passive Exoskeleton“]

Study: Cambridge University Press

4. Exoskeletons in Production and Logistics – Fundamental Principles, Morphology and Implementation Approach (Fraunhofer Austria)

In the abovementioned whitepaper by Fraunhofer Austria, the Paexo Shoulder exoskeleton is tested by three companies for its suitability in various areas of application. The Paexo Shoulder assists in the execution of various tasks: Ceiling assembly, wall plastering, marking & painting work as well as storage & retrieval activities in a small parts warehouse.
In particular, the Paexo Shoulder receives a very good rating for ease of use: in the statement “I find the exoskeleton, easy to use.” the Paexo Shoulder received an overall rating of 3.60 out of 4.00 highest possible points.

Whitepaper: Fraunhofer Austria (German only)

5. How does accelerometry-measured arm elevation at work influence prospective risk of long-term sickness absence? (Scandinavian Journal of Work, Enviroment & Health)

Elevated arm work is prevalent in many jobs. Feasible device-based methods are available to measure elevated arm work. However, we lack knowledge on the association between device-measured elevated arm work and prospective risk of long-term sickness absence (LTSA). We aimed to investigate this association.

Device-measured elevated arm work is associated with increased prospective LTSA. This information ought to be brought into preventive workplace practice by accessible and feasible device-based methods of elevated arm work.

Study: Scandinavian Jounral of Work, Enviroment & Health

Studies on Ottobock Back

The Ottobock Back supports employees, especially in the logistics sector, during classic picking activities or, for example, when loading and unloading a truck. The Ottobock Back exoskeleton works by relieving the lower back during lifting and carrying activities and is also the subject of research.

1. The Future of Injury Prevention in Logistics

In the aforementioned white paper, the Paexo Back and its effectiveness are examined using the AnyBody simulation software. The simulated task consisted of testers lifting a box weighing 22 lbs several times from the floor onto a table and placing it back on the floor. The simulation software calculated the forces acting on the lumbar spine of the human body when wearing the exoskeleton and without wearing the exoskeleton.
The results showed that when wearing the Paexo Back, there is a significant relief of the back. The compression pressure in the lumbar spine region L4/L5 was reduced from 2900 N without wearing the exoskeleton to 2293 N when wearing the exoskeleton.

Whitepaper: The Future of Injury Prevention in Logistics

Analysis of exoskeletons

The scalefit. method is a way to simulate and analyze the effects of exoskeletons on the human body. The following video shows the analysis of the Ottobock Back during a typical task in logistics, repalletizing. It shows the inclination of the person’s trunk, and compares the resulting compression forces on the lumbar spine in two scenarios: one where the person is wearing the Ottobock Back, and one where they are not.

Research on exoskeletons

Selected scientists conducting research on industrial exoskeletons

Standards for exoskeletons

The use of exoskeletons in industry is experiencing dynamic growth. An important factor for the widespread use of exoskeletons in the work environment are universally recognized standards. Norms and standards represent expert knowledge in the form of rules and guidelines that are recorded in writing and can therefore be easily disseminated by others. Since they are also accessible to everyone, they help people around the world understand each other better, react faster and act accordingly. Standards not only comprise the accumulated knowledge of leading market specialists, but are also powerful tools that promote innovation and competitiveness, make internal processes simpler, products safer and healthier, and increase productivity sustainably.
Currently, the following institutes are working and researching to formulate standards that define and standardize the quality, safety, performance and ergonomics of exoskeletons or assistive systems:

The aforementioned committees seek experts from all industries interested in accelerating the advancement of exoskeleton standards.