A worker prepares to cover his extremities with an exotraje at the doors of the assembly sector where he works. Although it seems like a situation typical of a science fiction movie, it is the reality that is lived in the Ford factory in Almussafes, Valencia. In these facilities, the automotive staff has been testing exoskeletons for four years to reduce work injuries and accidents. But Ford is not the only company in Spain that has taken a step forward when adopting this type of systems that, according to them, could combat the risks derived from work and improve the quality of the activity. Are exoskeletons the technological revolution of the factories of the future?
In 2019 there were more than a million workplace accidents in Spain, of which 650,000 resulted in a loss of the worker, according to data from the Ministry of Labor and Social Economy. Statistics indicate that the main causes of these accidents – almost 50% – are musculoskeletal overstrain, sprains or dislocations. For this reason, companies in the most affected sectors such as manufacturing, construction, extractive or storage industries are looking for a solution that can prevent ups and downs in the daily production of their workplaces. And one of the solutions is to dress your workers with these “robotic armour” or exoskeletons.
“With an exoskeleton in place, the worker is less likely to injure himself or have ergonomic risks. The idea is that the operator carries out the same activities and movements that he did before and that the exoskeleton is the one who adapts to the work method that already exists ”, comments Israel Benavides, program ergonomist at Ford of Europe. At Ford’s Almussafes factory, one of the most widely used exoskeletons is a prototype for the back. It is a piece of equipment held in the rear of the employee that helps the operator to move pieces or boxes without these movements supplying an overload due to the effort made. Another of the most widely used prototypes in the centre is the upper arm exoskeleton: mainly dedicated to activities carried out over the shoulder, such as lower screwing of vehicles.
Benavides points out that “the exoskeleton is an aid, but it must always be used after other technical or adjudicative measures have been applied.” And he explains: “Giving an operator a manipulator, establishing collaborative robots or changing processes to prevent employees from having to enter the car as much are measures that should be applied before implementing them. However, exoskeletons are of great help to improve worker ergonomics in the workplace. ”
Prevent injuries when lifting beams at railway facilities or moving sofas at Ikea
The use of exoskeletons has also begun to spread in other distribution and logistics sectors, according to Benavides, where the templates of warehouses consider these tools as an engine to increase productivity and reduce sick leave. At the Ikea warehouses in Badalona, the Swedish company carried out a program to test 2.5 kilo exoskeletons that allowed workers to distribute 50% of the effort required between the worker and the machine. This reduction of load managed, according to the company, to prevent the most common injuries derived from the ‘retail’ sector such as low back, back pain or joint injuries due to excess weight or poor movement.
Another of the great companies in our country that has been testing exoskeletons for years is Telice. This company specialized in carrying out works and installations in the railway sector began to carry out pilot tests with passive exoskeletons in March 2019. The works where they were initially tested were in typical fields of their activity: the catenary laying – a work in height— and the replacement of the communication gutter.
“The use of exoskeletons can result in a considerable reduction in the difficulty of certain types of work, due to the ability of the devices to guide, assist and support the natural movements of the operators. We also hope that the adoption of this technology will lead to a reduction in injuries and consequent sick leave, which should imply not only an increase in workplace safety but a decrease in costs due to the need to train operators in jobs that require certain physical capacities, “says Iván Rivera, head of Innovation at Telice.
Teplice tested several models of passive exoskeletons. The technology of passive exoskeletons differs from that of active exoskeletons in that they do not involve adding force through motors to the movement of the operators.: the devices consist of a series of accumulator levers and springs that adjust to the body of the operator who wears them and facilitate natural movements in an assisted manner.
The pilot tests were carried out with two types of exoskeletons with lumbar support (front and rear), one for leg assistance and a fourth for shoulder and forearm support. “We found that the first two were useful for work on the ground that required lifting and moving loads., and therefore they were particularly appropriate for the work of installation and maintenance of communication gutters, “Rivera explains. He continues:” The last type was especially indicated for work at height (it was tested in catenary lines, a job that requires maintenance arms raised for relatively long times) and we assume that it will also be valid for equipment installation work on tunnel walls. The leg support exoskeleton made it easier to squat, but we did not find such immediate utility in the routines of our operators. ”
According to Rivera, the test results were “very satisfactory”, although they found aspects of the use of exoskeletons that could improve in the future with the natural evolution of technology, especially related to its compatibility and the appallingness of some of the equipment, which forced operators to relearn their personal distances to facilitate their movements. “The technological revolution, in this case, will come from the hand of studies of human factors prolonged in time, which have not yet been carried out outside the scope of certain specific industries. Another very necessary factor for the massive adoption of these technologies will be the determination of their long-term return on investment, as well as the improvement in the quality of life of users, “concludes Rivera.
“Servoarmaturas” for the construction of trucks and vans
Another company that has spent years seeking to achieve an improvement in the ergonomics of its workers thanks to these “power armor” is Iveco. It is one of the leading companies in the manufacture of medium and heavy industrial vehicles such as trucks or vans. “We have been conducting tests with exoskeletons for about four years and we continue to analyze how a template adapts to its use and, at the same time, how the technology of these systems evolves,” says Paula Carulla, Director of Communication at Iveco.
In 2017, Iveco showed in its factory in Valladolid an exoskeleton prototype developed by the Engineering and Occupational Safety and Health departments together with a Swiss startup. This prototype allowed the operator to perform certain functions in an ergonomically similar position to the one we adopt when sitting, unloading the weight of the body on an external structure that reduced the tension and fatigue of the lower extremities.
During that day, several technicians from the factory spoke about the use of exoskeletons and power armor to facilitate the tasks of the operators in some areas of the factory. According to the company, one of the main objectives of the Iveco plant in Valladolid is to achieve the highest efficiency, quality and adaptability in production systems. To do this, the factory uses the application of new technologies such as exoskeletons and power armor that, experimentally, the Valladolid factory has been gradually introducing in the assembly and logistics areas.
So far, they have used exoskeletons in their factories in Valladolid and Madrid. In the first, to improve the safety and ergonomics of employees engaged in the construction of truck and van cabins. In the second, they were used to manufacture heavy-duty vehicles such as trucks. “We want to value the pros and cons. Before fully implementing them we want to know all its benefits, but also negative aspects. If an exoskeleton can atrophy a worker’s muscle mass, that person may not be comfortable using it. So we have to analyze the entire spectrum and see in which positions we can use them, “concludes Carulla.
Lighter and more efficient mechanisms
From Mutualia, one of the mutual collaborators of Social Security, they indicate that they are taking more and more seriously the measures to implement this equipment in their associated companies. Alberto Sáinz de la Maza, technician and expert in occupational risk prevention at Mutualia, affirms that “in every way, we are going in the direction of achieving an integration of man with the machine”. And he comments: “The teams are increasing their possibilities. If we look at their evolution from the last years we can see that before they were very bulky and complicated to use. They are now lightweight and easy to put on and take off. They are made of plastic elements, aluminium, steel or carbon fibre, which allows a much higher comfort ”.
Although it affects that these teams they are not applicable to all positions and to all situations. “The application in an activity where the back is affected, for example, is not the same as that affecting the raised arms or requires standing for a long time. In the first case, for example, if you flex the trunk with the exoskeleton frees your muscles from the load, so you do not get tired. There is another exoskeleton that attaches to your legs and is used for sitting. You can walk and move with ease and, at a certain moment, adopt a fixed position ”
On the other hand, Sáinz de la Maza explains that it is necessary to offer training to workers who have to use exoskeletons. “They have to know how to remove it, how to put it on and how the equipment is maintained. In addition, they must know well what their mechanisms are. The back one, for example, has a system that locks or unlocks your equipment and another that regulates the angle of your posture depending on the activity you are going to do. ”
One of the pioneering manufacturers of exoskeletons in Spain that supplies equipment to Mutualia and other companies is Gogoa Mobility Robots. This Basque company manufactures two lines of exoskeletons: industrial and sanitary. The first category is made up of suits with purely mechanical elements, without external power supply, with the aim of facilitating ergonomics in small spaces such as warehouses or factories, and they are around 3,000 euros.
“There are ergonomically compromised situations. If you have less fatigue during work, it is normal to think that you work better, so it is reflected in productivity. When you have to hold weights of up to 12 kilos for more than 20 seconds there is a muscular effort. Our goal is to reduce that effort. Many times clients come to us and ask us: ‘Can I lift 35 kilos with this?’ Our objective is not to generate ‘supermans’, but to reduce risks in the work routine, ”explains Juan Izeta, head of growth at Gogoa Mobility Robots.
Division in the templates to change the established
So far, European legislation does not classify exoskeletons as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), that is, mandatory devices or means available to a person in order to protect them against one or more risks that may threaten their occupational health. Izeta comments that “it is a matter of time that its use begins to spread and the benefits and evidence are reflected.” On the other hand, Izeta points out that, since its use is voluntary, there is a certain rejection and prejudice on the part of the templates to incorporate these tools into work activity. “Today, during tests, two of the workers at a metal factory were happy with the exoskeletons, but the third one, before starting the test, had already told us that they were not going to like it.”
In the medical sector, exoskeletons have made their way into the world of rehabilitation. “These robots help patients improve their quality of life and ergonomics by even allowing them to walk or perform certain movements,” explains Izeta. For this they have Hank, a robot with six joints for the two lower extremities. It is the first European certified exoskeleton and costs 75,000 euros. “One of the advantages of these robots is that they never tire of repeating movements. Thanks to their sensors they generate data and know the degrees to which a leg moves. A doctor can only tell you: “I see you better than yesterday,” or “You move your leg more than before,” but it doesn’t have the precision of a robot. These exoskeletons could regain the movement of the legs and arms of a person who cannot walk or pick up things. It’s the future”.