The story of exoskeletons is full of twists and turns, with promising technologies, challenging use cases, and a sometimes tortuous path to adoption. Robotics observers might be familiar with demonstrations on video or at conferences, but the developer story is rarely told.
The Robot Report recently got some insights from Otto Ineichen, business development manager at maxon motor ag in Switzerland. Ineichen has experience as an applications engineer and a sales engineer, and he described the evolution of exoskeletons for healthcare and industrial uses.
How did maxon, which supplies high-precision drives for robots and other devices, become interested in exoskeletons?
Ineichen: A few years ago, we became more and more focused in the U.S. on exoskeletons. We studied the growing market and saw exoskeletons for medical applications.
Maxon developed motors based on our standard parts. We have Generation 1, and we’re now working on Generation 2, to come next year.
The exoskeleton market will grow from 7,000 units and global hardware revenue of $192 million last year to 301,000 units and $5.8 billion in revenue by 2028, predicts ABI Research. How does that compare with maxon’s expectations?
Ineichen: We design a dedicated drive for the companies building exoskeletons. Most companies on the market with electric-driven exoskeletons initially designed them for medical or military use.
The majority of the industrial applications are passive exoskeletons, which are driven by springs or gas, to support assembly work. These exoskeletons are for supporting lower limbs, like the knees or hips for lifting tasks, or for the upper limbs for overhead work.
We’ve seen lots of companies and universities around the world developing exoskeletons, some in New Zealand, some in Europe, and some in the U.S.
What was the initial reception of maxon’s motors for exoskeletons?
Ineichen: Last year, we released our Exoskeleton Joint Actuator. A lot of universities used it for prototypes, and they liked it very much.
Based on their experience and feedback, we are able to provide more customized drives.
How is exoskeleton technology changing? We already know that battery weight and endurance are issues.
Ineichen: Based on what we’ve learned from the first users, exoskeleton developers need to continue trying to reduce the weight and to make it more dynamic. Most exoskeletons do not have the range of motion of the human body, but that is improving.
What else should exoskeleton designers be aware of?
Ineichen: During the development stage, we thought that backlash would be important and then discovered that was not the case. This allowed us to work on a simpler design and put more effort into dynamic motion controls.
At maxon, we understand that customization is very important during the design concept. At our newly built manufacturing facility in the U.S., maxon engineering services assist with project design.
We’re also working with universities participating in Cybathlon 2020, a competition for people with physical disabilities using assistive technologies. maxon is a key sponsor of the event and is supporting teams with our drive systems, as well as our expertise in drive technology.
What have you learned about exoskeletons for healthcare?
Ineichen: In the beginning, exoskeletons were mostly in hospitals and rehabilitation centers because of control and the price of the systems.
If engineers could reduce the weight and the size, that would make it easier for patients to use, and would help bring them into the home. In terms of efficiency, we already have high-efficiency systems.
As for cost, a reduction from the current price of approximately $45,000 per exoskeleton is needed to make it more affordable — the cost driver is based on quantity. Exoskeletons are currently low-volume; they could be less expensive if they were produced in higher volumes.
The biggest part of the costs is in the development, not the actuator. If vendors could sell more exoskeletons, that cost could be divided among more systems.
Does maxon follow developments in soft robotics and exoskeletons?
Ineichen: We do work with some companies in this field. The application is much different from the exoskeleton for paraplegic patients.
In the medical field, it’s often used for people recovering from strokes. Soft exosuits can help support them in the recovery process.
In general, the user needs a basic muscle function for soft exosuits, and the suit just amplifies the force.
What do you think about increasing competition?
Ineichen: We’ve seen that there are other companies entering this field, and we expect them to come up with some good systems.
maxon has been working on our designs and making them even better. We feel that we have had a great head start on perfecting what is needed in the marketplace. Our Generation 2 system will showcase these new developments.
The Robot Report has launched the Healthcare Robotics Engineering Forum, which will be on Dec. 9-10 in Santa Clara, Calif. The conference and expo focuses on improving the design, development and manufacture of next-generation healthcare robots. Learn more about the Healthcare Robotics Engineering Forum.
What advice do you have for exoskeleton developers?
Ineichen: A good point is that they should go to the motor producer really early in the design process. If they do that, it’s much easier to integrate drives into the whole system.
Developers may have to change from a unique design, making it harder to do a final design. If they can use something existing, the development time is much shorter.
That said, maxon is known for working closely with its customer base. We are strong in customization with design specifications in mind.
It’s important to know that our Generation 1 Exoskeleton Joint Actuator is a universal system. It has a lot of functions for testing and is a good starting point. The motor can be optimized so that developers can make quick progress.