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Intelligent exoskeleton based on human-robot interaction for manipulation of heavy goods in Europe’s factories of the future

Final Report Summary - ROBO-MATE (Intelligent exoskeleton based on human-robot interaction for manipulation of heavy goods in Europe’s factories of the future)

Even though trends in industry seem to be directed towards higher levels of automation, significant amounts of manual handling tasks exist and will remain in most industries. Manual handling tasks are always associated with risks for the health of the human worker. Direct and indirect costs related to health issues of the workers are substantial and the main source are musculoskeletal issues and injuries, which are often related to lifting and carrying of goods and tools.

The Robo-Mate exoskeleton is based on a modular design. By selecting the modules which fit a specific task best, the human is less impeded by the exoskeleton and the weight can be significantly reduced. We designed a trunk module, which is actuated at the hip of the worker and reduces the compression forces in the lower back. Two different arm modules were developed. The passive arm uses springs only to support the worker with a constant force counteracting gravity in the lower arm. The active arm is motor driven and the force can be dynamically adjusted depending on the load carried in the hand. In addition, the human machine interface module interacts with the exoskeleton but also can be used as a production advisory system. With the trunk and arm modules, by reducing the forces and moments acting on specific parts of the body, the worker can be protected from injuries to the musculoskeletal system.

To develop and validate the system, many more important activities were carried out. As no industrial standard for exoskeleton systems exists, the experience gathered during all the phases was used to liaise with the standardisation bodies to drive the development of existing and potentially new standards. To analyse the benefit, the Robo-Mate modules were integrated into a digital factory environment allowing to directly assess the physical loading of the human worker. To validate the functionality and the usefulness of the modules, tests in a laboratory setting where the physical effect on the user’s body was investigated. As hoped, the test proved that the stress in the lower back is reduced. However, the benefit is less pronounced than expected. All modules were thoroughly tested in an industrial setting by workers usually performing the same tasks. A promising result is that cycle time was not significantly changed, giving hope that an exoskeleton may well be an option for the future. Feedback from the workers was received and evaluated, giving valuable suggestions to improve the technology in the development of a product.

Robo-Mate attracted the attention from industry and the media from the beginning, even at a time when we had only plans and nothing concrete to show. We thus decided to concentrate our resources on attracting not just more attention but on attracting the attention specifically of organisations with a high potential for a collaboration after the end of the project. With these organisations we were then in close contact, showed them our prototypes, discussed potential application areas and possibilities for future collaboration. These measures were successful in that follow-up R&D projects are planned/have started, start-up preparations have been made and pilot tests/partnerships with companies are negotiated after the official project end.

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