Exoskeletons Bring Ergonomics to Industry

April 2015
Original Source: Audi AG Press Release

Image Source: Audi AG

Audi AG has begun testing its new “Chairless Chair” technology in its factory in Neckarsulm in Germany. It is a light exoskeleton made of carbon fibre which allows employees to be supported while they stand, and to sit, anytime and anywhere, without having to have a conventional chair. The “Chairless Chair” has been developed in partnership with the Swiss start-up Nonee AG.

Salients

  • Simple Design - The exoskeleton consists of a titanium structure which adjusts itself to the back part of a person’s legs and of a brace strapped to the torso. The chairless chair weighs 2.4 kg (5.3 lbs) and works with a hydraulic system controlled by buttons.

  • A Second Pair of Legs - A person uses the exoskeleton like an extra pair of legs to give him- or herself support when necessary, to sit without a chair, or to adopt a more ergonomic position for different tasks in production process. Workers can walk about as normal, and when they want to sit or lean or simply take the weight off their feet, they only have to press a button to fix the supporting structure in the position required. The body’s weight is then supported on the ground by means of these adjustable elements.

  • Ergonomics - The chairless chair improves posture, relaxes the leg muscles and reduces the wear and tear on knees and ankles.

  • Getting Ready for the Future - The pilot test is being carried out within the framework of Audi’s long-term strategy that has the slogan:“We for us. Active into the future.” This has led them to experiment in areas such as ergonomics in order to better meet the challenges likely to come in the future from the continued transformation of the industrial workplace.

  • Deployment in 2015 - At the moment three such pilot projects are being carried out at Audi’s Neckarsulm plant. A new pilot will begin at its Ingolstadt facility in May, after which Audi intends to deploy the chairless chair more generally on its production lines.

Insights

  • Ergonomics as a Preventive Measure - Millions of industrial workers suffer from back pain, and leg and ankle problems, on account of having to stand for long stretches, or because of the positions they have to adopt in order to do their work; leaning over, crouched or hunkered down. Of the 215 million industrial workers in the United States, it is calculated that some 85 million may have suffered muscular problems at some time or another, according to data from NCCR Robotics (Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research). What’s more, such distracting pain and fatigue can increase the risk of workplace accidents brought about by lack of attention to proper safety procedures. The costs occasioned by the time off work and the compensation which has to be paid in cases of such accidents could be brought down significantly by the use of exoskeletons as a preventive measure to mitigate such damage in the first place. Of equal importance is the fact that, while being good for the health and welfare of the workers in the long term, an ergonomically optimized working environment enhances productivity and the quality of the end-product.

  • Collaboration for Innovation - The partnership between Audi and Nonee is another example of how established companies, despite having their own very well set up R&D departments, collaborate with start-ups in some of their most innovative endeavours. Such systematic cooperation is a win-win situation for both types of business. It offers the established company a fresh source of expert knowledge and the new ideas that go with it, while giving the start-up the chance to get access to bigger markets with greater rapidity. Seeking, as it often does, to integrate talent, to maintain exclusivity and to control the relevant patents, it is no surprise that the established company often ends up incorporating the start-up as part of its own R&D department. It has yet to be seen if this will happen with Noonee and Audi.

  • A Concept for the Whole of Society - The concept of the “wearable chair” – a seat which does not get in the way of normal movement and which is only used when required – could find a lot of applications in professional services of one sort and another, and even for the domestic user. Noonee made it known last year, when they were presenting the chairless chair, that it had aroused a lot of interest, and that they had had enquiries from such diverse professionals as photographers, camera operators, gardeners and farmers, and from surgical clinics and outdoor activities centres. Some companies are already experimenting with prototypes for these various potential uses. Honda is one of them, with its Bodyweight Support Assist, an exoskeleton which supports the legs and is conceived for activities which require people to stand for a long time or to make a lot of effort with their lower extremities. With products like this, and the Stride Management Assist, which is meant for people who can walk but whose leg muscles are weak, Honda wants to position itself as a company which specializes not only in automobiles but in human mobility of all kinds.

  • The Industrial Exoskeletons’ Moment - According to the market research firm TechNavio, the global exoskeleton systems market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 72.51% over the period 2014-2019. Medical and military uses – for substituting for human muscular activity or for rehabilitation – are, for now, the major target sectors for these devices. There are, as yet, relatively few models or applications available, and those there are sell at fairly high prices, at over $100,000 per unit, on average. We envisage that industry will be the biggest customer for exoskeletons in the medium term, as much for the volume of units sold as for the variety of applications to which they will be put. Lockheed Martin, Panasonic, Honda, Daewoo and CyberDyne are among the companies which are already developing exoskeletons to assist industrial workers in their tasks, to prevent muscular damage, and to extend the human operator’s physical capabilities. Advances in the design of intelligent textiles and in battery power will no doubt increase the range of applications for exoskeletons, in a market which could be worth $1 billion over the next ten years.