The invasion of factories by exoskeletons is long overdue

Democratization of exoskeletons in factories is long overdue. Although the stakes are high, in France, 87% of diseases in the workplace are musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). As a reminder, musculoskeletal disorders manifest themselves in pain and discomfort in movements. Pain that can eventually lead to a work disability. Resulting in reduced productivity, and sick leaves. Factories and workshops are the main purveyors of this kind of sickness.

Among the ways in which the situation can be improved, exoskeletons often come back in the conversation. Even the European Union has officially extolled its merits and effectiveness. Yet the difficulties in their democratization remain. Heavy, sometimes embarrassing, they still struggle to convince as many people as possible. To make up for this, exoskeleton manufacturers are continually optimizing the ergonomics of their devices. As a result, they are increasingly offering lighter and more versatile models. Passives or actives. Let’s have a focus on this new generation of exoskeletons, aimed at invading, finally, factories and workshops.

Towards more efficient materials

Exoskeletons are constantly being improved. “The whole point of their development is to solve this contradiction: they must be efficient enough to help operators and simple enough,” explains Yann Perrot, head of interactive robotics department at the CEA List (Systems and Technology Integration Laboratory). Indeed, the more complex an exoskeleton is, the more its weight and cost increase. This makes it either inaccessible or difficult or even dangerous to wear. In fact, the INRS advises not to treat exoskeletons lightly. In particular, solid training is recommended to avoid accidents by workers and others.

In recent years, innovations have focused on the problem of weight. “In 2013, exoskeletons weighed between 10 and 12 kg,” says Jean-Jacques Atain Kouadio, an expert at the National Research and Security Institute (INRS). Today, we’re getting closer to 2-3 kg. »

This dramatic relief is due in part to a change in materials. Steel springs have gradually replaced carbon ones. In addition, manufacturers are increasingly focusing on highly specialized devices that only support one part of the body. Obviously, with greater efficiency. Postural exoskeletons, for example, cannot carry excessively heavy loads. But they allow workers to limit his fatigue when he has to repeat unnatural positions. Several models can carry a load ranging from 500 grams to 4 kilos. Some passive equipment can support loads of up to 25 kilograms.

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A major improvment: progressive assistance

Exoskeletons operate primarily through the principle of iso-elasticity. The system makes it easier to carry a load and reduces the effects of gravity. This physical principle discovered by Isaac Newton. One of the most common iso-elastic architectures is called the “deformable parallelogram.” However, this operation is still deficient when the worker must seize and then lay loads at a high rate. This is how progressive assistance was imagined.  The mechanical arm develops a different effort depending on its position. Thus, no help when the worker’s arms are lowered. But maximum assistance when they are high.

According to a study published by ABI Research, the exoskeleton market is expected to grow from $192 million to almost $6 billion. All between 2018 and 2028. But it is only at the cost of technical innovations that this boom will come true. And will drastically reduce occupational diseases in factories and workshops. Because the workers daily life must be improved and secured. For their wellbeing, but as well to reduce the huge bill caused by sick leaves in France. And nowadays, every money saving counts.