German exoskeleton-maker narrows gap between robots and humans

Soenke Rossing of German prosthetic limb maker Ottobock, presents an exoskeleton during an interview in Berlin. (Reuters)
Updated 11 September 2018
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German exoskeleton-maker narrows gap between robots and humans

  • VW considering permanent use after successful field test
  • Plans to launch 'Paexo' upper-body exoskeleton on Thursday

BERLIN: German artificial limb manufacturer Ottobock plans to start selling a mechanical exoskeleton that makes manual labour for factory workers easier this week, joining a field already crowded with major industrial players and start-ups.
The 99-year-old firm, which started out making prosthetics for World War One veterans, is seeking to tap new growth opportunities ahead of a possible stock market listing.
The family-owned company has tested the 'Paexo', a wearable upper-body exoskeleton designed to ease the physical strain of repetitive overhead assembly work, on 30 workers at a Volkswagen plant in Bratislava.
After 80 percent of workers said they would recommend it to colleagues, Ottobock is talking to Volkswagen about using the Paexo in series production, said Soenke Roessing, head of Ottobock's Industrials unit.
VW said it was in final consultations about rolling out the exoskeleton in series production.
Exoskeletons were developed for medical and military use. But as workers age, sales of exoskeletons for industry are forecast to rise to $1.76 billion in 2028 from $67.29 million this year, according Rian Whitton, an analyst at technology market intelligence firm ABI Research.
This corresponds to more than 126,000 units in 2028, against around 3,900 this year, as companies seek to make workers more productive and protect them from injury.
Ottobock plans to launch the Paexo on Thursday. Beyond the automotive sector, it is targeting the aerospace, shipping and construction industries as well as tradespeople, and is running pilots at over 20 sites in Europe, Roessing said.
Hans Georg Naeder, grandson of Ottobock's founder, sold a 20 percent stake to Swedish private equity firm EQT last year aiming to increase the company's value ahead of a possible IPO.
Since then, Ottobock, which had sales of 927.4 million euros ($1.08 billion) in 2017, has revamped its management with Naeder appointing Oliver Scheel as CEO, the first non-family member to run the company.
Ottobock began by developing exoskeletons to help people with partial paralysis or spinal injury walk again. Its move into industry is part of a broader bet on bionics - using mechanics to augment human strength.
It will not be alone. A host of new start-ups, including Dutch firm Laevo and California's SuitX, are racing more established players in the defence and engineering space, such as Lockheed Martin and Panasonic.
Ottobock's closest competitor, Iceland's Ossur, has teamed up with Fiat Chrysler's robotics specialist Comau and plans to launch an upper-body exoskeleton in December.
Other car companies are testing the technology too.
Ford Motor Co started testing upper-body skeletons developed by Ekso Bionics Holdings at two U.S. factories last year. Meanwhile workers at BMW's Spartanburg factory in the United States have trialed an exoskeleton vest from Levitate Technologies.
Audi is rolling out a "Chairless Chair" exoskeleton made by Swiss start-up Noonee that allows workers to sit instead of standing at its Ingolstadt factory.
It has also tested upper-body exoskeletons from Laevo and is planning a comparative study with Ottobock's Paexo and Levitate's Airframe later this year.
Patrick Schwarzkopf, managing director of the VDMA Robotics + Automation Association, said the scramble to develop exoskeletons underscored a trend towards closer interaction between humans and machines in factories.
"An exoskeleton is probably the most intense form of human-robot collaboration. In a way, your arm becomes a robot arm because it has reinforced strength," he said.
Schwarzkopf sees exoskeletons competing with inexpensive collaborative robots, or "cobots", which can work alongside humans, for example placing a tyre on a vehicle while leaving the worker to screw it into place.
A cobot can cost as little as $10,000, although they typically cost two to three times that. Ottobock's Paexo is priced at 5,000 euros.
The Paexo is a 'passive' exoskeleton that works by transferring the weight of the raised arms to the hips through a mechanical cable technology that takes the stress off a worker's shoulders.
The backpack weighs 1.9 kilograms and gives the user's arms a feeling of weightlessness akin to floating in a swimming pool.
Roessing said the Paexo was the lightest of its kind and can be worn for eight-hour shifts, allowing workers to hold heavy tools or screw in parts overhead without strain. To make his point, he wore the Paexo throughout an interview with Reuters.
Juergen Klippert, an expert on the future of work at the IG Metall union, said exoskeletons ostensibly provided relief. But it was unclear whether a worker's joints would be burdened by holding heavy tools for prolonged periods.
Ottobock plans to make its exoskeletons "intelligent" by adding sensors to help workers correct their posture and tell them what part to place where in the assembly process. Prototypes to support the back and hand are also in development.
After colleagues kept asking to borrow the 'Paexo' for the weekend to do home renovations, Roessing now wants to launch a simplified version for the price of a good power tool.


‘Don’t be too optimistic’: Huawei employees fret at US ban

Updated 26 May 2019
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‘Don’t be too optimistic’: Huawei employees fret at US ban

  • This week Google, whose Android operating system powers most of the world’s smartphones, said it would cut ties with Huawei
  • Another critical partner, ARM Holdings, said it was complying with the US restrictions

BEIJING: While Huawei’s founder brushes aside a US ban against his company, the telecom giant’s employees have been less sanguine, confessing fears for their future in online chat rooms.
Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei declared this week the company has a hoard of microchips and the ability to make its own in order to withstand a potentially crippling US ban on using American components and software in its products.
“If you really want to know what’s going on with us, you can visit our Xinsheng Community,” Ren told Chinese media, alluding to Huawei’s internal forum partially open to viewers outside the company.
But a peek into Xinsheng shows his words have not reassured everyone within the Shenzhen-based company.
“During difficult times, what should we do as individuals?” posted an employee under the handle Xiao Feng on Thursday.
“At home reduce your debts and maintain enough cash,” Xiao Feng wrote.
“Make a plan for your financial assets and don’t be overly optimistic about your remuneration and income.”
This week Google, whose Android operating system powers most of the world’s smartphones, said it would cut ties with Huawei as a result of the ban.
Another critical partner, ARM Holdings — a British designer of semiconductors owned by Japanese group Softbank — said it was complying with the US restrictions.
“On its own Huawei can’t resolve this problem, we need to seek support from government policy,” one unnamed employee wrote last week, in a post that received dozens of likes and replies.
The employee outlined a plan for China to block off its smartphone market from all American components much in the same way Beijing fostered its Internet tech giants behind a “Great Firewall” that keeps out Google, Facebook, Twitter and dozens of other foreign companies.
“Our domestic market is big enough, we can use this opportunity to build up domestic suppliers and our ecosystem,” the employee wrote.
For his part, Ren advocated the opposite response in his interview with Chinese media.
“We should not promote populism; populism is detrimental to the country,” he said, noting that his family uses Apple products.
Other employees strategized ways to circumvent the US ban.
One advocated turning to Alibaba’s e-commerce platform Taobao to buy the needed components. Another dangled the prospect of setting up dozens of new companies to make purchases from US suppliers.
Many denounced the US and proposed China ban McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and all-American movies and TV shows.
“First time posting under my real name: we must do our jobs well, advance and retreat with our company,” said an employee named Xu Jin.
The tech ban caps months of US effort to isolate Huawei, whose equipment Washington fears could be used as a Trojan horse by Chinese intelligence services.
Still, last week Trump indicated he was willing to include a fix for Huawei in a trade deal that the two economic giants have struggled to seal and US officials issued a 90-day reprieve on the ban.
In Xinsheng, an employee with the handle Youxin lamented: “I want to advance and retreat alongside the company, but then my boss told me to pack up and go,” followed by two sad-face emoticons.