Vest with soft robotics gives workers more power

Wednesday, 01 April, 2015

A power vest, using what experts call ‘soft robotics’, could be the way of the future for manual handling, as sensor technology embedded in the vest can provide back support for workers exposed to frequent heavy lifting.

The non-bulky orthosis vest (a short form of orthopedic prosthesis) is designed to be light, soft and easily worn over clothes, while still supporting the spine without limiting its range of motion. Electronic sensors are incorporated into the material to continuously monitor the way the wearer is moving and activates a warning lamp as soon as it detects any irregularity.

Researchers from Fraunhofer in Germany have collaborated with industry to address the startling statistics showing millions of people within the EU injure themselves each year at work due to picking up heavy loads, or from one-sided movements - in particular, caregivers.

“Until now, there haven’t been any efficient support systems to help caregivers with the heavy work they encounter in their extremely varied day-to-day work,” said Fraunhofer Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology IPK expert Henning Schmidt, who heads up the CareJack project.

In Germany, back pain is a national complaint, with nearly 10% of all lost working days attributable to lower back problems, according to the 2014 Health Report published by the Techniker Krankenkasse.

The study found that occupation had a significant impact on the duration and frequency of time taken off due to poor health. Caregivers in hospitals and nursing homes were a prime example due to the physical strength they must employ to move, mobilise and transfer patients, which often puts their musculoskeletal system under stress.

Innovative synthetic actuators with adjustable rigidity help the wearer avoid incorrect movements and support correct ones.

“The wearer can decide themselves what level of support they want,” Schmidt said.

The energy to assist the wearer comes through the user’s movements. When a worker bends down to lift a load, the smart medical aid stores the kinetic energy and can release it again when needed.

The Fraunhofer researchers worked with company partners to develop miniaturised components, flexible circuit boards and sensors to create a vest that is light and comfortable for workers to wear.

A prototype of the vest is expected in 2015 with production taking one to two years before it can be released to the market.

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