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Germany’s Ottobock plans to start selling ‘mechanical exoskeletons’
September 12, 2018
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BERLIN: German artificial limb manufacturer Ottobock plans to start selling of ‘mechanical exoskeletons’ that make manual labour for factory workers easier this week, joining a field already crowded with major industrial players and start-ups.

The 99-year-old firm, which started out making prosthetics for World War One veterans, is seeking to tap new growth opportunities ahead of a possible stock market listing.

The family-owned company has tested the ‘Paexo’, a wearable upper-body exoskeleton designed to ease the physical strain of repetitive overhead assembly work, on 30 workers at a Volkswagen plant in Bratislava. After 80 per cent of workers said they would recommend it to colleagues, Ottobock is talking to Volkswagen about using the Paexo in series production, said Soenke Roessing, head of Ottobock’s Industrials unit.

VW said it was in final consultations about rolling out the exoskeleton in series production.

Exoskeletons were developed for medical and military use. But as workers age, sales of exoskeletons for industry are forecast to rise to $1.76 billion in 2028 from $67.29 million this year, according Rian Whitton, an analyst at technology market intelligence firm ABI Research.

This corresponds to more than 126,000 units in 2028, against around 3,900 this year, as companies seek to make workers more productive and protect them from injury.

Ottobock plans to launch the Paexo on Thursday. Beyond the automotive sector, it is targeting the aerospace, shipping and construction industries as well as tradespeople, and is running pilots at over 20 sites in Europe, Roessing said.

POSSIBLE IPO

Hans Georg Naeder, grandson of Ottobock’s founder, sold a 20 per cent stake to Swedish private equity firm EQT last year aiming to increase the company’s value ahead of a possible IPO. Since then, Ottobock, which had sales of 927.4 million euros ($1.08 billion) in 2017, has revamped its management with Naeder appointing Oliver Scheel as CEO, the first non-family member to run the company.

Ottobock began by developing exoskeletons to help people with partial paralysis or spinal injury walk again. Its move into industry is part of a broader bet on bionics - using mechanics to augment human strength.

It will not be alone. A host of new start-ups, including Dutch firm Laevo and California’s SuitX, are racing more established players in the defence and engineering space, such as Lockheed Martin and Panasonic. Ottobock’s closest competitor, Iceland’s Ossur, has teamed up with Fiat Chrysler’s robotics specialist Comau and plans to launch an upper-body exoskeleton in December.

Other car companies are testing the technology too.

Ford Motor Co started testing upper-body skeletons developed by Ekso Bionics Holdings at two US factories last year. Meanwhile workers at BMW’s Spartanburg factory in the United States have trialed an exoskeleton vest from Levitate Technologies.

Audi is rolling out a ‘Chairless Chair’ exoskeleton made by Swiss start-up Noonee that allows workers to sit instead of standing at its Ingolstadt factory.

It has also tested upper-body exoskeletons from Laevo and is planning a comparative study with Ottobock’s Paexo and Levitate’s Airframe later this year.

Patrick Schwarzkopf, managing director of the VDMA Robotics Plus Automation Association, said the scramble to develop exoskeletons underscored a trend towards closer interaction between humans and machines in factories.

“An exoskeleton is probably the most intense form of human-robot collaboration. In a way, your arm becomes a robot arm because it has reinforced strength,” he said.

Reuters

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