Smart robotics: German Bionic on bringing intelligence to exoskeletons

As suits that enhance human worker productivity, safety and capability, robotic exoskeletons are not known for their brains. That role is filled by the humans wearing exoskeleton suits, but German Bionic in recent months has been showcasing how exoskeleton connectivity and analytics capabilities can bring additional intelligence into play for users.

The company, based in Augsburg, Germany, announced a few months ago its 5th generation Cray X exoskeleton, which it claimed “is the world’s first fully connected exoskeleton system for industrial use,” such as lifting and moving heavy loads, and which features an On-Site Intelligence capability that collects worker behavior and workflow data for analysis to feed insights back to users. Fierce Electronics recently spoke with Norma Steller, Head of IoT at German Bionic about the 5th Generation Cray X. What follows is an edited version of that interview

Fierce Electronics: What kind of data does the new Cray X collect and in what other ways does it help to have IoT connectivity?

Norma Steller: [The data collected] can be anything from how much a weight has been compensated for by the device during any given period, to keeping track of quarterly KPIs. In addition, we also have the Smart Safety Companion, an AI-based digital monitoring system that alerts the wearer of improper posture or fatigue potential. The benefit of having a connected exoskeleton is that we can send over-the-air updates. This allows us to constantly improve our product by tailoring updates to our customers' needs. We haven’t just built a suit that helps warehouse workers pick up heavy things; we’ve built a platform to help manufacturers digitize their warehouse to increase productivity and protect their people. With this technology, we’re linking humans and machines in a safe and efficient way. 

In comparison to competitors, German Bionic’s Cray X 5th Generation is an active exoskeleton. This means that a 40V battery provides support to the wearer and prevents exhaustion and fatigue. Other companies use passive exoskeletons, where energy that is produced by the wearer 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.

FE: What use cases are you targeting?

NS: At this time, German Bionic primarily serves industrial customers. Our recent launch of the Cray X 5th Generation, which now has waterproofing and additional walking support, amongst other advancements, is suitable for the outdoors. So, in addition to our core business in the logistics field, our new exoskeletons are also used to support workers in areas such as rail maintenance or the construction industry. Because we’re able to send updates to our devices over the air, much like the Tesla model or iPhone updates, we are prepared to enter new verticals at ease. The verticals and body regions that we’re in now are just the beginning. We want to be the best in one vertical and then move to others, which we plan to do soon. 

FE: Is the Cray X 5th gen being used now in real commercial applications, and do you have any data on how it has benefited users?

NS: The Cray X 5th Generation is currently being rolled out to first customers. In addition to companies using the new Cray X in their logistics and intra-logistics, we are also seeing new customers with other use cases. For example, a major German railroad company is using the 5th generation Cray X for outdoor maintenance work.  

While I can’t provide exact data from the warehouses, from past experience I can tell you that on average, the suit has certainly been found to significantly increase productivity and reduce sick days by up to 25%. Our data also shows that the Cray X regularly provides lifting compensation of 1 ton or more per hour for each worker.

Other data provided by German Bionic IO can also be used to identify inefficiencies that are otherwise difficult to detect. For example, the platform enables you to monitor whether people walk excessive distances. You can then optimize the design of the workplace to reduce unnecessary walking distances by moving the goods or the tools closer to the workplace or position items differently. For example, by simply moving the label printer closer to the workplace, the amount of walking required could be reduced by a mile within a single shift – thereby increasing efficiency and reducing unnecessary waiting or idle times as well as reducing the likelihood for premature fatigue.

FE: Is there a 6th generation Cray X in the works or other new products you can discuss?

NS: We definitely have some exciting new things coming this year. While I can’t get into the specifics just yet, I can tell you that it will be a step up from the Cray X and am happy to connect with you when the time comes.

FE: As fully-automated robotics continue to evolve, what will the role be for exoskeletons? Will they continue to have a role in assisting humans in work tasks, or will they move in the direction of more automation and intelligence, reducing the human role?

We believe that the future of industrial robotics should involve an interaction between humans and technology, and that humans cannot be fully replaced by robots and automation. There’s a lot of technical limitations when it comes to automation. There’s still no real intelligence in machines and it’s extremely expensive to create. There are dangerous environments where automation makes sense, but it doesn’t need to be everywhere. Exoskeletons are the perfect blend of human and robot. The technology augments humans in a way that allows us to do what we previously could not. With this technology, we can help people continue to earn a living and to do it safely and efficiently. The relationship between humans and robotics shouldn’t be a daunting reality, but one where we see robotics as support systems that improve our lives.

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