Exoskeletons: Will they ever be useful for household DIY work?

A man in a car shop wears an exoskeleton made by the German prosthetics company Ottobock that aims to lighten the load on employees. — dpa

Whether it's painting walls, trimming hedges or working on things overhead, it's said that exoskeletons might one day make all kinds of everyday tasks easier.

Until now, they've largely been associated with the sophisticated technology used in the rehabilitation of paraplegics. But they're increasingly of interest to employers, and some models are already becoming more compact, looking a bit like a rucksack.

Roessing, a developer for prosthetics company Ottobock, promises this technology can benefit labourers and DIY aficionados alike.

The possibilities they offer are many: They can be used to take the weight of a person's arms as they work overhead, or to help lift heavy objects. But whether they're a miracle aid that will mean fewer injuries for workers has not yet been determined scientifically.

Roessing and Ottobock spent six years developing their Paexo model before it came on the market several months ago.

German carmaker Volkswagen came to the company in 2012 looking for something to help workers who had to carry out a lot of overhead work, putting strain on their shoulders and upper arms.

After tests with heavy, hydraulically powered models, the company developed a lighter, more compact system.

First it attached two ball-and-socket joints to a hip belt. To that are attached two metal poles that lead up to two joints, which mirror the shoulders' function. From there the bars lead to the upper arms.

With the help of cables, the load on the arms is diverted directly to the hips without travelling through the back or shoulders.

Ottobock isn't the only company currently experimenting with exoskeletons. In Germany for example, there's also German Bionic Systems, which is working on a model that will actively relieve pressure on the lower back.

But can such exoskeletons really provide a magic remedy against shoulder, back and knee injuries?

"At the moment there's a lively discussion in the scientific community," says Sascha Wischniewski from Germany's Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAUA).

The decisive question is whether the systems actually support the body or just redistribute the strain.

"Loads are usually redirected elsewhere in the body," says Benjamin Steinhilber from the University Hospital in Tuebingen. "It's hard to assess whether the increase in physical strain might lead to injury in another part of the body."

The biggest problem with assessments is that since the technology is so new, it's hard to say what the long-term effects will be.

"For us it's also important to know, with the current passive exoskeletons [without a power source] on the market, whether we're talking about a tool, or personal protective gear for employees," says Wischniewski.

Fundamentally, he says, businesses should be working towards creating workplaces where exoskeletons aren't necessary.

"An exoskeleton shouldn't be the first thing we think of when it comes to creating a workplace; it should be used only when there's no better ergonomic alternative."

And yet Roessing's big dream is to have an exoskeleton aimed at handymen looking for some support while working around the home by December.

Whether that dream will come true by the end of 2019, however, is still an open question. At €4,900 (RM22,941), the exoskeleton is still far beyond the reach of most ordinary people. – dpa
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