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.


French state-owned bank drops plan to aid trade with Iran

Updated 24 September 2018
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French state-owned bank drops plan to aid trade with Iran

  • US-imposed sanctions sanctions iare making trade with Iran increasingly difficult for European companies - such as Volvo
  • US is renewing sanctions on Iran after withdrawing from a nuclear deal forged in 2015 between Tehran and world powers

PARIS: French state-owned bank Bpifrance has abandoned its plan to set up a mechanism to aid French companies trading with Iran, in the face of US sanctions against Tehran.
Earlier this year, the bank had said it was working on a project to finance French companies that wished to export goods to Iran despite US sanctions.
“It’s put on hold,” said Nicolas Dufourcq, Bpifrance’s chief executive. “Conditions are not met (...) Sanctions are punitive for companies.”
Bpifrance was working on establishing euro-denominated export guarantees to Iranian buyers of French goods and services. By structuring the financing through vehicles without any US link, Bpifrance thought it was possible to avoid the extraterritorial reach of US legislation.
Dufourcq’s latest comments show how the scope of the sanctions is making trade with Iran increasingly difficult for European companies.

Swedish truckmaker Volvo has been forced to stop assembling trucks in Iran as it can no longer get paid with US sanctions taking bite.
Volvo spokesman Fredrik Ivarsson said due to the sanctions Volvo could no longer get paid for any parts it shipped and therefore had taken the decision to not operate in Iran.
"With all these sanctions and everything that the United States put.. the bank system doesn't work in Iran. We can't get paid... So for now we don't have any business (in Iran)," he said.
The US is renewing sanctions on Iran after withdrawing from a nuclear deal forged in 2015 between Tehran and world powers. Washington reimposed some of the financial sanctions from Aug. 6, while those affecting Iran’s petroleum sector will come into force from Nov. 4.
Even though several European countries have said they are seeking to protect their companies from the sanctions, several major companies including oil company Total, Air France-KLM and British Airways have announced they would suspend activities in Iran.
German officials have in recent weeks advocated for the creation of an independent system for cross-border payments to make trade with Iran possible even with the US sanctions.
European Union diplomats have said US President Donald Trump’s positions on trade and on Iran were fueling a rethink about the EU’s dependency on the US financial system.
However, European countries appear to be struggling to find or agree on effective options to tackle the issue.