Vacuum lifters from Schmalz’s standard product range are used in countless industries for handling various loads. With their ergonomic design and ease of use, they assist employees in commissioning, package shipping and machine loading. Because of demographic changes, the average age of the people working in such companies is increasing, and the physical strain from manual handling is rising. Employees often lift total loads of multiple tons per day, even if a single package weighs only a few kilograms. Innovative approaches like body-assist lifting aids help to further reduce negative health effects and prevent musculoskeletal disorders over the long term.
This new type of human-machine cooperation involves lightweight structures whose function is to stabilize the back and rear and reduce strain on sensitive regions of the body like the wrists, elbows and shoulders. Schmalz aims to combine the ergonomics of its lifting devices with the active relief of joint strain provided by the exoskeletons. The initial focus is to develop a system that assists with ergonomic movements when the employee bends down. The challenge is to encourage lifting with a straight back and assist the employee in bending the knees. Posture can be actively corrected and guided by reducing the load on the legs.
In its research project “60+,” Schmalz worked together with partners from the Technical University of Munich to examine the scientific and technical aspects of an on-body load manipulation system. The long-term goal is the development of an exoskeleton with intuitive controls and for which the user can customize the level of assistance. The lifting aid will give employees more mobility and allow them to work faster while reducing physical strain. In addition to the complicated kinematics, the project poses immense design challenges. Wearable systems must be lightweight and quick to take on and off. They must also give employees maximum freedom of movement: User acceptance will be the key factor in the success of the product.
Schmalz has developed its first prototypes for a passive leg assistance device that works in combination with the vacuum tube lifters. The system provides assistance to the wearer, particularly for frequently performed tasks below waist level, like scanning packages. A torso connection ensures ergonomic posture and reduces strain during long periods of standing. Employees decide for themselves how much assistance they would like. The next step in the development process is to completely relieve strain for frequent work at low heights, for example during assembly tasks. The knee joint can be actively inhibited to allow the wearer to come comfortably to a sitting position. Additional experimental models are currently being designed – Schmalz is conducting field tests in an assembly plant and longitudinal studies under real-life conditions. The company plans to partner with additional development partners for the next stages as it seeks to prepare the devices for series production.