Exoskeletons for workers: Interview with German Bionic’s Marius Kiss

Exoskeleton

The benefits of industrial exoskeletons are two-fold. Not only can they reduce worker incidents related to musculoskeletal injuries, but they can support the supply chain by increasing warehouse productivity via AI-based monitoring systems.

German Bionic’s 5th Generation Cray X exoskeleton does just that for clients such as BMW, Ikea, Hermes, and international parcel delivery specialist DPD. This new exoskeleton with upper- and lower-body assistance can support up to 66 additional pounds per lift and adds walking assistance to the mix. That’s a first for the Cray X line.

We at RoboticsBiz recently had an interview with Marius Kiss, the head of Mechanical Research and Development at German Bionic, to discuss the current exoskeleton market, in which a wide range of companies, big and small, are working to blur the line between human and robotic workers by offering mechanical assistance for physically demanding manual labor.

Notably, Marius has ten years of experience in development, from prototype and series development to industrialization. Marius studied mechatronics, focusing on industrial robotics at The Polytechnic University of Timisoara.

You can read the complete interview below:

1. One of the biggest challenges of deploying exoskeletons in an industrial setup is the difficulties in dealing with different manufacturing phases and frequent production variations arising from uncertainties. Do exoskeletons come one-size-fits-all? What are the solutions?

Marius Kiss
Marius Kiss, the head of Mechanical Research and Development at German Bionic

This is a great question, as it’s true that the manufacturing process can vary from warehouse to warehouse and even from one user to the next, which is why a rigid solution is just not realistic. With this in mind, we’ve made sure that all of our products, including the 5th Generation Cray X, are highly customizable to ensure we can serve a wide range of clients in varying phases of production.

From the hardware perspective, German Bionic’s exoskeleton offers various sizes for all the belts and straps located on the chest and leg of the Cray X suit. The exosuit also can be adjusted for varying heights. German Bionic can also customize suits for high visibility workplaces by offering exoskeletons with reflectives.

From the software perspective, the 5th Generation Cray X includes an On-Site Intelligence feature, providing real-time data on both worker behavior and workplace workflow. This means that after we ship the suits to our customers, we can see how they’re performing on the warehouse floor. Data we gather could be on anything from how much weight has been compensated for by the device to keeping track of quarterly KPIs. From this, we can identify whether productivity blocks are happening in the workflow and alert our customers. We also send over-the-air Tesla-style updates specifically tailored to each warehouse based on what solutions are needed.

2. Recent studies reveal that wearing an industrial exoskeleton can reduce loading on one part of the human body but, in doing so, increase loading on another part. For example, muscle activity in the shoulder and back of the arm can be reduced during overhead working but increased muscle activity in the lower back, abdomen, and legs. Also, an exoskeleton can be comfortable to wear against some parts of the human body but cause uncomfortable contact pressure onto other parts of the body. How do you handle this?

Because German Bionic’s 5th Generation Cray X is an active exoskeleton, the load on the user is actively reduced. Unlike a passive exoskeleton that redistributes weight across the body, our exoskeleton provides users with new energy from a battery. The Cray X suit does have an anchor point on the thighs, but our measurements have shown that no additional strain is recorded on the other body regions. To ensure users do not experience strain, we prioritize the biomechanical build, working closely with a physical therapist to design the human-machine interface with the user in mind. Our take is that if an exoskeleton feels like a brand new pair of leather boots that you have to break-in, it’s poorly designed.

3. Tell us about German Bionic’s 5th Generation Cray X exoskeleton? What does it make different from other exoskeletons in the market?

German Bionic’s Cray X is the world’s first fully connected exoskeleton system for industrial use. This means that we haven’t just built a suit that helps warehouse workers pick up heavy things. Still, we’ve connected the hardware with AI-based software, resulting in features such as On-Site Intelligence as mentioned before and the Smart Safety Companion. The Smart Safety Companion is a digital monitoring system that alerts the wearer of improper posture or fatigue potential. Having a connected exoskeleton is that we can send OTA updates, much like the Tesla model updates work. This allows us to constantly improve our product by tailoring updates to our customers’ needs.

Aside from the software updates, the 5th Generation Cray X exoskeleton includes walking assistance, waterproofing to support outdoor use cases such as construction and railroad workers, and a 1-minute swapping time of an upgraded 40-volt battery. The exoskeleton also features improvements on the carrying system and biomechanical human-machine interface to provide users with even more comfort and security.

Both hardware and software updates have made Cray X the leading partner in helping manufacturers digitize their warehouses to increase productivity and protect their people. With this technology, we’re linking humans and machines safely and efficiently.

In comparison to competitors, German Bionic’s 5th Generation Cray X is an active exoskeleton. This means that a battery supports the wearer and prevents exhaustion and fatigue. Other companies use passive exoskeletons, where the energy that the wearer produces is stored and released when required. We believe this is limiting, as, at the end of the day, the amount of force exerted by the wearer still determines how many pounds are lifted that day, which can cause safety issues.

4. Tell us about your current journey with clients, such as BMW, Ikea, Hermes, and international parcel delivery specialist DPD?

IKEA has been using German Bionic’s Cray X exoskeleton in its European warehouses since mid-2019 to protect its workers from injuries. In addition, workers at BMW’s German branch utilize the Cray X to protect workers’ backs when changing tires. German Bionic is currently undergoing a long-term test run with package delivery specialist DPD to support workers lifting heavy packages (sometimes up to 70lbs). Björn Scheel, the COO of DPD, has expressed the impact the exoskeletons have on their workers when unloading packages from swap bodies and semi-trailers. More on each of our partnerships can be found here.

Overall, German Bionic’s Cray X has been found to reduce sick days for its customers by up to 25%, and its lifting compensation is 1 ton or more per hour for each worker.

5. What is the future of exoskeletons in the next five years? Can you elaborate on the roadblocks and recent advances?

Exoskeletons have changed over the last five years, so I can only imagine how much they will continue to advance exponentially. Even at German Bionic, our prototype from 2016 barely resembles the 5th Generation Cray X from a software and hardware perspective.

As AI capabilities advance and batteries, electronic components, and actuators miniaturize, I predict we’ll see exoskeletons merging more and more with everyday life – we could even see some integrated with clothing.

Overall, exoskeletons will only continue to appear in society, not just in warehouses. Rather than just being for workers to lift heavy objects or for patients who need spinal support, we’ll start to see exoskeletons used recreationally for activities like running. You may even see your packages be delivered by a driver wearing an exoskeleton in the future.

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