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

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.


Electric luxury vehicles, SUVs ‘more likely to cause accidents’

Updated 23 August 2019

Electric luxury vehicles, SUVs ‘more likely to cause accidents’

  • As EV sales rise, French insurer AXA warns that drivers are struggling to adapt to cars’ rapid acceleration

LONDON: Electric luxury cars and sport utility vehicles (SUVs) may be 40 percent more likely to cause accidents than their standard engine counterparts, possibly because drivers are still getting used to their quick acceleration, French insurer AXA said.

The numbers, based on initial trends from claims data and not statistically significant, also suggest small and micro electric cars are slightly less likely to cause accidents than their combustion engine counterparts, AXA said at a crash test demonstration on Thursday.

AXA regularly carries out crash tests for vehicles. This year’s tests, which took place at a disused airport, focused on electric cars.

Overall accident rates for electric vehicles are about the same as for regular cars, according to liability insurance claims data for “7,000 year risks” — on 1,000 autos on the road for seven years — said Bettina Zahnd, head of accident research and prevention at AXA Switzerland.

“We saw that in the micro and small-car classes slightly fewer accidents are caused by electric autos. If you look at the luxury and SUV classes, however, we see 40 percent more accidents with electric vehicles,” Zahnd said.

“We, of course, have thought about what causes this and acceleration is certainly a topic.”

Electric cars accelerate not only quickly, but also equally strongly no matter how high the revolutions per minute, which means drivers can find themselves going faster than they intended.

FASTFACT

Accident rates among luxury and SUV electric vehicles are 40 percent higher than for their combustion engine counterparts.

Half of electric car drivers in a survey this year by AXA had to adjust their driving to reflect the new acceleration and braking characteristics.

“Maximum acceleration is available immediately, while it takes a moment for internal combustion engines with even strong horsepower to reach maximum acceleration. That places new demands on drivers,” Zahnd said.

Sales of electric cars are on the rise as charging infrastructure improves and prices come down.

Electric vehicles accounted for less than 1 percent of cars on the road in Switzerland and Germany last year, but made up 1.8 percent of Swiss new car sales, or 6.6 percent including hybrids, AXA said.

Accidents with electric cars are just about as dangerous for people inside as with standard vehicles, AXA said. The cars are subject to the same tests and have the same passive safety features such as airbags and seatbelts.

But another AXA survey showed most people do not know how to react if they come across an electric vehicle crash scene.

While most factors are the same — securing the scene, alerting rescue teams and providing first aid — it said helpers should also try to ensure the electric motor is turned off. This is particularly important because unlike an internal combustion engine the motor makes no noise. In serious crashes, electric autos’ high-voltage power plants automatically shut down, AXA noted, but damaged batteries can catch fire up to 48 hours after a crash, making it more difficult to deal with the aftermath of
an accident.

For one head-on crash test on Thursday, AXA teams removed an electric car’s batteries to reduce the risk of them catching fire, which could create intense heat and toxic fumes.

Zahnd said that studies in Europe had not replicated US findings that silent electric vehicles are as much as two-thirds more likely to cause accidents with pedestrians or cyclists.

She said the jury was still out on how crash data would affect the cost of insuring electric versus standard vehicles, noting this always reflected factors around both driver and car.

“If I look around Switzerland, there are lots of insurers that even give discounts for electric autos because one would like to promote electric cars,” she said.