Research boost for "Digital Ergonomics"

Digital assistance systems make use of exoskeletons smarter

Semhar Kinne - Scientific employee at Fraunhofer IML

In the social networked industry, exoskeletons can make a significant contribution to reducing physical strain on employees and optimizing their performance. Experiments within the context of the major initiatives of Fraunhofer IML – “Innovationlab Hybrid Services in Logistics” and “National Centre of Excellence for Logistics and IT” – as well as in the ADINA research project should now improve the study situation on exoskeletons. Semhar Kinne presents the latest projects of the so-called “Digital Ergonomics”, which are based on computer-supported tools.

Exoskeletons are external mechanical support structures and have the potential to improve ergonomics in manual activities. Such mechanical devices exist in the form of driven or purely mechanical systems and can support people in lifting and carrying heavy loads, for example. In logistics, the use of exoskeletons is particularly useful in manual load handling to relieve the lumbar spine or in over-shoulder work to relieve the shoulder/neck area. In principle, the support structures should not lend superhuman strength to the employees. On the contrary, they are intended to absorb the overload resulting from today's normal work. Therefore, exoskeletons primarily serve to prevent musculoskeletal disorders and increase the endurance of employees, which in turn has a positive effect on productivity. However, there is so far no proof of the long-term efficacy of exoskeletons. Various pilot applications are being tested in the ADINA research project, which runs until mid-2020.

Three factors for the use of exoskeletons

Although exoskeletons are far more filigree than well-known synonyms such as “robot suits”, they have not yet de facto established themselves in logistics and production. There are diverse reasons for – three factors in particular play an important role:

•    Wearing comfort. People are differently built. In order for an exoskeleton to work optimally, it should fit as precisely as possible. The individual adjustment possibilities of the support structure to the body shape and skeletal system of the wearer are therefore of great importance. In addition, the use of an exoskeleton should have no influence on the freedom of movement.

•   Acceptance. The employees‘ readiness to wear an exoskeleton is decisive for the further success of the technology. However, acceptance is hampered both by concerns about higher performance requirements and by fears of image loss when using work aids.

•    Safety. Specially driven exoskeletons represent a special form of human-machine interaction, the challenge of which lies in the recording of user intentions. If the technology misinterprets the intention of a wearer, the wearer himself or other people can be endangered. It must be ensured that only humans have control over the system.

Current research is therefore based on the idea of identifying influencing factors for the successful use of technology in logistics and integrating them into organizational concepts.

Assistance system supports precise selection

As part of the “Innovation Laboratory Hybrid Services in Logistics”, the scientists at Fraunhofer IML have set up a test environment in which they analyze the workload when using exoskeletons, taking into account handling and wearing comfort. From the results of the first laboratory study in February this year, an assistance system has been developed that supports users in the individual, precisely fitting selection of exoskeletons. In future studies, participants will also evaluate the comfort and relief provided by the exoskeleton. At the same time, they will be asked about their attitude towards vital data measurement by the wearable.

The evaluation of selected vital data as well as the analysis of movement sequences flow into a general concept for the demand-oriented use of exoskeletons. In addition, new assistance systems are being developed to sensitize users to the correct handling of exoskeletons. Therefore, a higher acceptance can be achieved with the users. The use of exoskeletons in logistics can finally become reality – to protect both employees and their health.



Semhar Kinne is scientific employee at Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics IML and expert for questions on exoskeletons, physical ergonomics and handling technology.