Lifting boxes above head height, repositioning a bedridden patient, or assembling heavy components in production - many work-related activities go along with monotonous postures or repetitive lifting. Exoskeletons can reduce strain and prevent long-term musculoskeletal injuries and illnesses.
The Ottobock Shoulder Exoskeleton is adapted to the user and can be worn comfortably for up to eight hours. Similar to a backpack, the device is worn close to the body and allows full freedom of movement.
Exoskeletons support the body and assist certain movements without restricting the user. Until now, they have primarily been used in industrial and trade settings, albeit not in a comprehensive manner. With its Ottobock Bionic Exoskeletons division, Ottobock has specialized in the production of occupational exoskeletons. Dr. Sönke Rössing, CEO Ottobock Bionic Exoskeletons, explains: "Our goal is to provide relief for people who perform physically demanding tasks and to create healthier workplaces. Our exoskeletons can reduce pain or discomfort in the back, shoulders, neck, wrists, or fingers as musculoskeletal disorders are the leading cause of sickness absence."
Exoskeletons are useful in a multitude of tasks and are not limited to specific job sectors as they are gradually finding broader applications. That’s because the devices not only benefit the employees but also the companies. Rössing explains who might benefit from exoskeletons: "The device provides relief during strenuous activities such as overhead work or heavy lifting. Exoskeletons can be used in a multitude of ways, which includes unloading containers, supporting painters and electricians with overhead tasks or relieving surgeons during long hours of surgery. Exoskeletons make it more comfortable to carry out such physically demanding tasks. There is also a positive impact on peoples’ spare time: Since the device takes stress off joints and muscles, the users often feel less exhausted at night."
As long as patients are still mobile and can help, it is easier for the nursing staff. Helping bedridden patients or people whose mobility is severely restricted becomes more difficult, as they often have to be lifted and carried.
Exoskeletons provide relief for surgeons in the operating room
Users don’t need to worry that wearing the exoskeleton will be uncomfortable. That’s because industrial exoskeletons that facilitate prevention are much smaller than those used in rehabilitation settings. The Ottobock Paexo Shoulder comprises connected individual parts users wear like a backpack that only weighs 1.9 kilograms. The model is available in sizes S to XXXL and can be adjusted to fit everyone. The first models have already conquered the OR to support surgeons in their work. Long surgeries – especially in neurosurgery – require physicians to target and treat delicate structures with precision. A reduction in manual dexterity or tension and tightness in the neck and shoulders could dramatically impact patient outcomes.
There are other conceivable applications in healthcare facilities such as geriatric and nursing homes, though the devices are still underutilized in this setting. Yet exoskeletons could also be helpful in relieving workloads and reducing the number of sick days in this area. They could also assist in home care scenarios that are physically demanding for family caregivers.
REHACARE: Focus on exoskeletons in Hall 6
To raise awareness of the multifaceted applications of exoskeletons as it pertains to prevention, REHACARE 2022 will feature a larger, dedicated area in Hall 6, allowing visitors to attend exciting lectures and get a first-hand experience of exoskeletons in action. Initiator Dr. Urs Schneider from the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA has partnered with the REHACARE trade fair, the IFF University of Stuttgart, the Wearable Robotics Association WEARRAand the inclusion offices LVR- The Rhineland Regional Council (Landschaftsverband Rheinland) and LWL– The Regional Association of Westphalia-Lippe (Landschaftsverband Westfalen-Lippe). Besides prevention, the partners will also focus on rehabilitation.
Urs Schneider: "Torso and shoulder exoskeletons are currently being used in the care sector for back support and in the operating room to relieve a static forward lean of the trunk. They reduce the physical load on sensitive parts of the body that are prone to hurt and wearout from repetitive movements. In passive exoskeletons, spring-like components are used to redistribute weight from one part of the body to another part that is more resilient. For example, forces are diverted from the lumbar region to the thighs. Meanwhile, active exoskeletons also use drive systems such as motors. Other options include exoskeletons that are full body, elbow, wrist, and thumb relief systems."
Apart from prevention pertaining to physically healthy people, the trade fair also aims to enable people with disabilities to participate in the workplace with the help of exoskeletons. Because here, too, the exoskeletons can prevent physical wear-and-tear and stresses: "The purpose of industrial exoskeletons in the workplace is injury prevention, meaning primary prevention. This gives rise to the following questions. First: Can exoskeletons also be used for secondary prevention of back pain in the future? This ailment is relatively harmless, but it affects many people. The second question is: Can exoskeletons provide relief for physical disabilities in the future? Wheelchair users must always support their shoulders. Can shoulder exoskeletons make life easier for these users in the future, thanks to wheelchair-accessible installation, for example?" says Urs Schneider.
Nobody can predict when exoskeletons will become the norm rather than the exception in the workplace. One thing we know for sure is that they provide great support for users. They can increase employee satisfaction and they often benefit companies by reducing sick days. That’s why we should look forward to more developments in this area over the next few years.