Ottobock reaches for growth with industrial exoskeletons
* To launch the 'Paexo' upper-body exoskeleton on Thursday
* VW considering permanent use after successful field test
* Market for industry seen at $1.76 bln by 2028 - ABI
By Caroline Copley
BERLIN, Sept 11 (Reuters) - German artificial limb
manufacturer Ottobock <IPO-OBH.F> plans to start selling a
mechanical exoskeleton that makes 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 percent 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.
Hans Georg Naeder, grandson of Ottobock's founder, sold a 20
percent 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 U.S.
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
+ 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.
Schwarzkopf sees exoskeletons competing with inexpensive
collaborative robots, or "cobots", which can work alongside
humans, for example placing a tyre on a vehicle while leaving
the worker to screw it into place.
A cobot can cost as little as $10,000, although they
typically cost two to three times that. Ottobock's Paexo is
priced at 5,000 euros.
The Paexo is a 'passive' exoskeleton that works by
transferring the weight of the raised arms to the hips through a
mechanical cable technology that takes the stress off a worker's
The backpack weighs 1.9 kilograms and gives the user's arms
a feeling of weightlessness akin to floating in a swimming pool.
Roessing said the Paexo was the lightest of its kind and can
be worn for eight-hour shifts, allowing workers to hold heavy
tools or screw in parts overhead without strain. To make his
point, he wore the Paexo throughout an interview with Reuters.
Juergen Klippert, an expert on the future of work at the IG
Metall union, said exoskeletons ostensibly provided relief. But
it was unclear whether a worker's joints would be burdened by
holding heavy tools for prolonged periods.
Ottobock plans to make its exoskeletons "intelligent" by
adding sensors to help workers correct their posture and tell
them what part to place where in the assembly process.
Prototypes to support the back and hand are also in development.
After colleagues kept asking to borrow the 'Paexo' for the
weekend to do home renovations, Roessing now wants to launch a
simplified version for the price of a good power tool.
($1 = 0.8587 euros)
(Reporting by Caroline Copley
Editing by Giles Elgood)
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