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.


China’s Xiaomi swings to net profit in Q3 on robust sales in India, Europe

Updated 19 November 2018
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China’s Xiaomi swings to net profit in Q3 on robust sales in India, Europe

  • Profit for the three months through September reached $357.23 million
  • The firm has been adding new brands to its smartphone portfolio to target niche consumers

HONG KONG: Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi Inc. said on Monday it swung to a net profit in the third quarter, beating analyst estimates, driven by robust sales in India and Europe.
Profit for the three months through September reached 2.48 billion yuan ($357.23 million), versus an 11 billion yuan loss in the same period a year earlier. That compared with a 1.92 billion yuan average of five analyst estimates compiled by Refinitiv Eikon.
Xiaomi also said operating profit sank 38.4 percent to 3.59 billion yuan in the third quarter. Revenue rose 49.1 percent to 50.85 billion yuan.
The mixed results come amid a slowdown in smartphone purchases both in China, where Xiaomi once was the top-selling handset brand, and overseas.
Nevertheless Xiaomi, along with fellow low-cost handset makers Oppo and Vivo, accounted for around a quarter of the global smartphone market in the first half of 2018, showed data from researcher IDC.
Xiaomi’s fastest-growing markets are India, where it has had success with its budget Redmi phone series, and Europe, where it entered in 2017 with launches in Russia and Spain. Earlier this month it released its flagship Mi 8 Pro device in Britain.
But to weather the global market slowdown, analysts said Xiaomi needs to expand to new markets and also sell more higher-priced devices with wider profit margins.
The firm has been adding new brands to its smartphone portfolio to target niche consumers. Concurrent with today’s earnings, it announced a partnership with Meitu Inc, a maker of a photo app popular with young women, to sell phones under its brand. Earlier this year it launched Black Shark, a phone targeted at gamers, and Poco, a value-for-money device aimed at India.
Mo Jia, who tracks China’s smartphone makers at research firm Canalys, said attempts to sell more expensive devices requires changing its brand perception.
“It’s still very hard for Xiaomi to change its perception of being a low-end device manufacturer as the majority of its smartphone shipments are the Redmi series.”
Xiaomi also aims to transform itself from a smartphone firm into a software company. As the firm prepared for its IPO, founder Lei Jun touted Internet services — namely advertisements placed on the firm’s in-house apps — as its future and key differentiator from other handset brands.
In the third quarter, Xiaomi’s smartphone division grew revenue by 36.1 percent while its Internet service division grew 85.5 percent. But phones made up 64.6 percent of total sales, while Internet services made up 9.3 percent.
The results are the second set released by Xiaomi since the smartphone maker raised $4.72 billion in an initial public offering (IPO) in June, valuing the firm at about $54 billion — around half of some earlier industry estimates of $100 billion.
Its shares have fallen roughly 20 percent since they started trading in July amid a broader Chinese stock market sell-off and concern about a slowdown in China’s tech industry.