German Bionic Systems is a company that produces exoskeletons: wearable robotic frameworks that help people perform heavy work. An interview with CEO Peter Heiligensetzer about the future of work.
Peter Heiligensetzer, why do we need exoskeletons? In the Industry 4.0 working world, humans will only have to program and press buttons – or so we’re led to believe.
I categorically disagree. I have spent the last twenty years working on forms of human-robotic collaboration in industry. And I am certain that in the next fifty years humans will not be replaced fully by machines, not even on the manufacturing shop floor. There are so many areas where humans still have the advantage over robots – tactile sensitivity in the fingers, for instance, or the ability to react flexibly to obstacles such as trailing cables. Don’t get me wrong: I am a businessman and entrepreneur through and through. If automating a process makes good business sense, then that’s the way to go. But what I’m hearing from the auto industry is that automation on assembly lines is declining, not increasing. The reason: when the chips are down, robots are no more than dumb machines.
How does your “ Cray X ” work?
It’s worn like a trekking backpack, but with additional straps on the thighs. Cray X is powered by battery-driven electric motors. The device can assist in either of two ways, depending on what job the wearer is doing. In the first mode, Cray X pulls up the wearer’s upper body, exerting a constant vertical force, and can provide core support when the wearer spends an extended time bending down. The second mode helps with lifting. The wearer has a special armband, which senses when the forearm muscles are tensed and communicates with the Cray X processor. This starts the exoskeleton’s motors and helps raise the object.
German Bionic Systems wants to promote health with Cray X
It sounds like you’re turning humans into robots.
No not at all. We’re helping people carry out their jobs in a way that’s better for their health. Our device can compensate for up to 15 kilograms of lifting weight. Any more isn’t feasible at present, because it would put too much strain on the knees. We are making health and safety more flexible and cheaper for employers.
So not Iron Man with supernatural powers?
Definitely not, that remains science fiction. The idea of our exoskeleton is to remove the need for humans to lift heavy loads – they’ll just go about their work in the usual way, but without putting the same strain on their lumbar spine.
I am certain that in the next fifty years humans will not be replaced fully by machines, not even on the manufacturing shop floor.
But you can’t prevent employers from exploiting this extra strength to rachet up demands on their workers.
True, and only the workers themselves or their unions can stop this happening. But we expressly sell our product with this proviso; we’ve defined this together with professional associations and train the users accordingly.
Why should an employer spend around 40,000 euros on a device like this?
In line with occupational health and safety regulations, an employer has to provide a lifting aid when staff repeatedly have to lift anything heavier than five kilograms. To date, the solution of choice has been robotic arms, which are expensive and not particularly flexible. Often workers don’t even use them because they’re so complicated. Humans are simply better – and with the help of an exoskeleton, they can keep going without jeopardizing their health. Expanding on this idea, older people or people who already have back problems could in future still have employment opportunities in a manufacturing environment.
So you’re showing us where humans still have their place in Industry 4.0?
Exactly. I have no fear of robots. I know what they can and cannot do. Still, there’s a lot of uncertainty and fear among the wider public. It’s easy to view robots as job killers. But Cray X isn’t a “bad robot” that’s stealing jobs. The opposite is true, and maybe that’s why people find our exoskeleton so fascinating. For the real tech enthusiasts, it’s a thrill just to hear the whirr of the motors as Cray X wearers move. It sounds rather like when the C3PO robot in “Star Wars” moves around.
In the Cray X micromechanics and ergonomics complement each other
Where exactly do you see the uses of your device?
We actually developed it for industrial production. I knew this field best through my other company,
MRK-Systeme, which configures robots for special applications. The automotive industry is definitely a key target group for us. Fiat, for example, was involved in an early international EU-funded research project. But we’re now also getting inquiries from logistics, construction and also from hospitals, where nursing staff have to do a lot of lifting of patients. Airports have also inquired about baggage unloading. And we could envisage Cray X helping rescue workers in a range of scenarios – for example searching for trapped or injured people after an earthquake. Heavy equipment is no use in a situation like this. We’re not so interested in military applications, but perhaps there is a use in the medical field, as an aid to people with spinal injuries. However, this is a complicated area with its own rules and standards.
Does an exoskeleton collect user data – and if so, what happens to the data?
Yes it does, and we’re using this data for the time being – anonymized, of course – to evolve our Cray X. Looking further ahead, we want to create an open software platform through which the anonymized user data will be publicly available for analysis and research purposes.
And employers can use this data check up on the performance of staff?
The anonymized data can indeed by used by the company, but only in accordance with German data privacy directives – as is true for any other digital tool in the workplace. In addition, the data is hosted on servers here in Germany.
The anonymized data can indeed by used by the company, but only in accordance with German data privacy directives.
Your first company was founded in the traditional way – but for your German Bionic Systems startup you’ve gone with third-party funding. Why?
We knew after the first research project with universities and other partners that there was genuine economic potential. But you need substantial funding up front to develop a prototype into a market-ready product. It did indeed take a total of five years to get the Cray X ready for mass production. And even that is a manual process. It takes a couple of days just to assemble the device. Then comes advanced testing and finally customer training. In short: we could not and did not wish to take on the challenge using our own resources, so we brought investors from Germany, Japan and Taiwan on board. So far, we have completed two financing rounds successfully and acquired enough capital for the next few years.
Market research institutes predict burgeoning growth rates for the exoskeleton business of 40 to 50 percent per year. The US Institute BIS Research expects a market volume of US$ 4.65 billion by 2026. What are your financial goals?
In terms of exact numbers, we’d prefer to keep a low profile, but so far we are more than happy with order volumes. And we expect to be increasing our headcount – we currently have 30 employees – over the course of this year.
What would you personally like to have an exoskeleton for in everyday life?
Oh, I still do fine without one! But I’ll probably buy a lawnmower robot soon. As I said: full automation, wherever possible.
Images: German Bionic Systems