Move over Tony Stark, there’s a new player in town. Start-up in Augsburg German bionic has developed wearable exoskeletons that grant superhuman strength – although they are slightly more modest than Iron Man’s.
Founded in 2017, the startup is one of many companies around the world developing exoskeletons to make physically demanding jobs easier. Whether it’s warehouse workers, aged care professionals or construction workers, “everyone can benefit from a little extra support,” Norma Steller, CPO at German Bionic, tells TNW.
Germanic Bionic’s two commercially available exoskeletons — the Cray X and the recently launched Apogee (pictured) — are carried like a backpack. Powered by electric motors, they sense when a user moves, delivering up to 30 kg of extra force to your back, upper body and legs, where and when you need it.
“When you put the device on, it can feel strange and heavy at first,” says Steller – the exoskeletons themselves weigh about 7 kg. “But once the engines kick in, it feels great. You feel strong, tall and capable — it gives you this kind of feeling,” she said.
These are active exoskeletons: they use battery-powered motors and advanced control systems to increase human strength, which differs from passive versions that provide purely mechanical support. While active systems are more complicated and expensive – $9,995 a pop for the latest Apogee model — they provide extra support to the lower back, the part of the body that generally takes the brunt of heavy lifting, Steller says.
The units also collect data and alert users to behaviors that increase the risk of injury, such as excessive repetition and improper lifting or twisting movements. Powered by AI, the suits learn your unique individual movement patterns, “to support you in how you need to be supported,” says Steller.
German Bionic has raised nearly €45 million in funding to date, more than any other European exoskeleton company. The startup predicts that the technology will be used for all kinds of applications in a few years, and could be even helping the elderly or disabled to become mobile again. The Cray X has already been tried in a hospital in Berlin to help Sara Vaz Contreiraz, a nursing ward supervisor, with her physically demanding work in the geriatric ward. “I’ve tried it and I must say I’m extremely impressed,” she said.
There are an estimated 2.7 billion “deskless” workers worldwide, with many physically demanding jobs that put a lot of strain on the body and increase the risk of injury. A comprehensive EU-wide study found that three in five employees experience musculoskeletal disorders, with back pain being the most common.
The working age population in the EU is also aging and understaffed, meaning there are more older people in physically demanding jobs and fewer people overall to share the burden – literally. In response, companies are looking for new ways to do more with less and enhance the well-being of their employees, with some turning to exoskeletons as a possible solution. But why don’t they just invest in robots?
“10 years ago, people believed that automation and robotics were a panacea for the labor crisis, but it didn’t turn out that way,” Steller told TNW. “The reality is that automated solutions are still much more expensive than human labor and are often inappropriate: for example, most people would not want their elderly parent to be cared for by a robot or for a robot to replace a surgeon. However, these physically demanding jobs could be supported by robotic exoskeletons.”
Last year, British tech retailer Currys invested more than £250,000 in a fleet of German Bionic’s Cray X exoskeletons to to help warehouse workers, while the UK National Health Service purchased 127 units of lower back exoskeletons in 2021 to help nurses with patient care. The German parcel delivery company DPD also uses the Cray X at a number of its locations.
“The exoskeletons primarily serve to protect the health of our employees,” says Ville Heimgartner, senior innovation project and sustainability manager at DPD. By protecting their staff and preventing injury, so do logistics companies expected to see long-term cost savings through fewer claims.
In 2022 there were about 93,000 exoskeletons in use in workplaces around the world, and this number is expected sevenfold by 2030. Despite the current high entry costs, the market estimated growing at 41.3% per year, making it a nearly $2 billion industry by 2025. By 2030, revenue will be from the sale of active exoskeletons predicted to surpass $5 billion, almost twice as much as passive versions.
And there are more and more companies taking advantage of this emerging industry. Based in the US Eco Bionics has developed an exoskeleton for construction workers aimed at supporting the shoulders. French startup Wondercraft has developed one exoskeleton of the lower body to help patients recover from spinal cord injury and that of Spain Mars Bionics launched one gait exoskeleton for children with neuromuscular disorders.