Carglass and Mensura test exoskeletons in real work situation
For years, Carglass, a specialist in car windshield and bodywork repair and replacement services, and Mensura have been working together to improve employee well-being and health in the workplace. Particular attention is devoted to ergonomics, since lifting, moving and installing a car windshield can put stress on the back and shoulders. The company did not hesitate for a moment to take part in the experiment.
Work area based on load profile
“Movement analyses and measurements of, for example, muscular activity, were used to create ergonomic load profiles for the various types of work areas,” explains Gerrit Pollentier, Prevention Advisor for Ergonomics at Mensura. “These are used for such things as providing employees with back or shoulder problems with specific movement advice or during the reintegration process following a workplace accident.”
The profiles also proved useful for the exoskeleton experiment. Mensura used these profiles to select work areas where the greatest potential impact could be made with the various exoskeleton models. For the test location, Carglass chose its news warehouse, where employees lift windshields on and off shelves. Two types of shoulder-supporting exoskeletons were tested for an entire workweek.
The test project was carried out by the Brussels Human Robotics Research Center (BruBotics) lab of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. VUB researchers Shirley Elprama (imec-SMIT) and Sander De Bock (MFYS) led the project as part of their doctoral studies. You can also read the opinion piece on VUB Today.
Less support and comfort issues
The results of the test were mixed. Safety Advisor JelleBonroy explains, “The shoulder-supporting effect turned out to be less significant than expected. This is due primarily to the nature of the work performed in the warehouse. Suppose an employee stocks windshields for ten minutes. In this case, the actual lifting lasts roughly 30 seconds. The rest of the time, the skeleton interferes with freedom of movement.”
The test subjects specifically reported a number of comfort issues. The suits are heavy to wear, are very tight-fitting and it takes quite a bit of time to take them on and off. Jelle continues, “Another downside is that every exoskeleton is custom-adapted to one specific employee. As a result, every crew needs different suits. This means that a significant investment would be needed.”
Exoskeleton ensures the right body posture
The conclusion is that the time is not yet ripe for a wide rollout of the exoskeleton. Yet Carglass identified one specific target group that would clearly benefit from the shoulder-supporting skeleton, namely employees already suffering from back or shoulder problems.
Jelle adds, “An exoskeleton ensures the right body posture. A follow-up project will be launched shortly in which we will be conducting long-term tests with the skeletons among specific employees already suffering from ergonomic-related problems. The exoskeleton may very well be a helpful tool for this group to enable them to continue working in a health-responsible way for longer.”
A process, not a magic pill
Jelle is convinced, however, of the important role that can be played by exoskeletons in the future to alleviate the strain of repetitive motions in warehouses and on the production floor. After all, manufacturers are always adapting and updating their current models in terms of both user-friendliness and support capacity.
“Who knows, perhaps we’ll be able to use it in the near future,” concludes the Safety Advisor. “But with an important side note: the primary focus should be to continue efforts to introduce systematic ergonomic improvements in our various work areas. An exoskeleton will never be a ‘magic bullet’ for solving ergonomics problems.”
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