Audi tests exoskeletons to boost employee ergonomics in plant

by Autocar Pro News Desk , 14 Dec 2019

German luxury carmaker Audi wants to further improve employees’ ergonomics in its production facilities. The company is currently conducting a comparative study of two exoskeletons. These external support structures are designed to help employees when they are performing overhead tasks by protecting their joints and tiring their muscles less quickly.

All in all, around 60 employees are currently using these tools over a period of several weeks at selected workstations in assembly, the paint shop and tool construction at the Ingolstadt site in Germany. 

The company says many process steps in the production involve overhead jobs that are unavoidable. When technical and organisational measures for optimum ergonomics have been exhausted, exoskeletons frequently offer valuable support. Two of these aids – the Paexo from Ottobock and the Skelex 360 from Skelex – are currently being tested by Audi in its paint shop, assembly and toolmaking shop at the Ingolstadt site.

“Our employees are our most important asset. By constantly reducing the burden at the workstations, we can enhance their health and wellbeing. New technologies such as exoskeletons, with which we are making production more and more progressive, also contribute to this,” says Peter Kossler, Board of Management Member for Production and Logistics, Audi.

The comprehensive practical tests are designed to help adapt the exoskeletons to the employees’ needs in an ideal manner. They are being tested in both static and dynamic activities, for instance installing the brake lines, screwing the underbody paneling into place and applying corrosion and sealing protection. Audi has already gained initial promising experience with one of the two exoskeletons in the Gyor plant in Hungary. 

Both the Paexo and the Skelex 360 are worn like a backpack on the shoulders and secured in place with a belt around the hips. Arm shells support the arms when the wearer is performing overhead work. These absorb part of the arm’s weight and re‑direct it to the hips via support structures. This reduces the burden on the shoulders. This is done purely mechanically, without any motorised drive.

Exoskeletons are nothing new in Audi production. The company has already been dealing with these aids for around four years in order to enhance ergonomics. Since then, Audi has regularly tested different systems in pilot projects. One such system is a structure created by Laevo that reduces the burden on the person’s back when they are lifting or moving objects. Initial tests in logistics, the press plant and assembly yielded promising results. The company says it should come as no surprise that the ergonomics experts from Audi see considerable potential for using exoskeletons in overhead work.

“The main focus here is always on ergonomic benefit, wearing comfort and reducing the burden on our employees,” said Ralph Hensel, a specialist in exoskeletons at Audi. He says the goal is to implement exoskeletons in the long term and on a cross‑site basis at specifically selected, predetermined workstations.

It may be recollected in 2015, Audi had introduced high-tech, carbon-fibre chairless chair that eases many assembly activities and allows workers to sit without a chair. The chair also improves employees posture and reduces the strain on their legs.