Exoskeletons in logistics: how these lifting assistants offer support in warehouses

Looking for logistics experts – and finding a super hero: for some people, exoskeletons sound like a phenomenon from the world of science fiction, but for many others, they are already a daily companion at work. Exoskeletons in logistics support employees when they are handling heavy parts or when completing tasks that involve overhead work. We provide an overview of the opportunities offered by these innovative lifting assistants.

Man wearing an exoskeleton lifts a parcel in a warehouse

What are exoskeletons?

Are they enormous machines controlled by human beings or metallic robotic suits that can fly? Their design is not actually quite as futuristic as that. Exoskeletons that are used in the world of logistics, for example, are normally light, wearable suits that offer stability and ease the pressure on the user’s body during heavy work or repeated movements. They do this using electricity, rechargeable batteries, compressed air, springs or weight distribution. A distinction is made between so-called active exoskeletons, which are powered by electricity, and passive exoskeletons, which have a spring system or distribute the weight in some other way. They were originally developed for rehabilitating patients with limited mobility and for the armed forces. While they are still being tested in individual cases at this time, these lifting assistants could soon be put to more extensive use in logistics and many other fields. They help ease the burden on workers and offer greater productivity in various activities at warehouses

Accepting the challenge: assisting devices for the workplace of the future

The main task of exoskeletons is to prevent musculoskeletal disorders. According to the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health1, they are the most frequent cause of sick leave and incapacity to work in Germany. Different types of pressures exerted on people’s motor system can have a negative effect on their long-term health, particularly among those working in the retail sector, the automobile segment and at intralogistics warehouses. Exoskeletons can therefore reduce levels of absence from work by easing the pressure on workers’ backs, for example, and they can help qualified employees work in a healthy way for longer. As a result, exoskeletons create positive ergonomics in warehouses and prevent injuries.  

Pneumatic gloves can support the transmission of force with tasks that involve fine motor skills, for example, at small parts warehouses. Other types of exoskeletons allow workers to sit without a chair. But probably the most widespread model involves the backpack-like suits, which protect people’s backs and lower lumbar vertebrae when they lift or carry heavy objects, and deflect the weight caused by this effort across their hips, for example.

Using exoskeletons to cope with the pressure on workers’ motor system in warehouses

Some manufacturers' exoskeletons can lift up to 25 kilograms - and therefore reduce heavier loads too. This makes lifting and carrying smaller packages very simple. Larger loads at least become lighter. Nevertheless, wearers still have to use the muscle power in their arms.

Exoskeletons are primarily used as a lifting aid in logistics. Managing goods in warehouses is a workplace where it is not easy to introduce any automation. Here, goods involving the most varied shapes and sizes are frequently moved, sometimes in small quantities. Picking, quality control and loading also require a high degree of concentration and very detailed work. At the same time, any monotonous or stressful posture creates rapid fatigue in employees.

This is why several logistics service providers are already testing exoskeletons in this area as a physical support, a preventive measure and to reduce safety risks. "The health of our qualified employees is our most valuable asset," says Francois-Xavier Goussard, the Head of Methods and Innovations in France at the Rhenus Group, emphasising his point. The globally active logistics service provider was already testing exoskeletons as aids for workers lifting weights at a warehouse site in the French port of Valenciennes in 2020 – you can find the press release related to this here. "We’d been planning to test exoskeletons as support for our order pickers and in the loading area for some time. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the tougher safety conditions for our employees, we specifically tested exoskeletons so that employees could maintain minimum distances at workplaces."

Exoskeletons for Logistics 4.0 – just pie in the sky?

Exoskeletons therefore offer many benefits for workplaces in intralogistics in order to reduce the pressures on the human workforce. But there are also risks, such as incorrect handling and the resulting injuries, muscular/skeletal disorders and accidents at work. Exoskeletons are not yet ready for series production either and are sometimes very expensive. "Following our initial test, we first decided to examine and further develop the entire process at the picking station within our warehouse and when people are loading trucks," Goussard reports. “We’ll then consider extending the test and purchasing some exoskeletons. However, introducing exoskeletons in our warehouse is a real possibility for us."

In other sectors, such as the automotive industry, exoskeletons already augment the personal protective equipment at the workplaces of some US car manufacturers. However, studies, such as the one conducted by the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics or IML2 , not only see their potential for static activities, but also the need to adapt the ergonomics and make them easier for wearers to use.

And what happens next? Will robotic suits do the job without any human pilots at all in a few years from now? "I wouldn't go that far," says Goussard. "The exoskeletons help with heavy loads, but the key element in our tasks is our employees' ability to combine skills and their knowledge about how, where and in which manner each package has to be located, assembled and loaded. We’re still a very long way from having a machine that’s able to operate in the same way as an experienced warehouse worker.”

Thanks to innovative solutions such as exoskeletons, we can make warehouse processes even more efficient for you.

But what other technologies does Rhenus already use?

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