Zwei Männer tragen eine Ottobock Exoskelett in einer Fertigungshalle und besprechen sich.

UX and Exoskeletons — An Expert Interview

Jan Groenefeld Lead UX Designer

03/12/2020 • 6 minutes reading time

In the first part of our article on the Paexo exoskeleton, our Solution Manager Industry Jan Groenefeld tells us about his visit to Ottobock and what he learned about “human mobility”. Missed this article? Then check it out here!

Why are we — as a digital agency focusing on user experience — even interested in things like this?The answer is simple: innovation and curiosity are part of our DNA. Ergosign also sees itself as an active driver of digital transformation. In order to provide our clients from various industries with meaningful advice, it’s essential to broaden our own horizons. Even if technology doesn’t seem to have anything at all to do with user interfaces in the strictest sense at first glance.

This is the case with Ottobock exoskeletons.

A key moment was the realization that Ergosign and Ottobock are linked by a common mission: human-centered design through the responsible and sustainable use of present and future technology. For a world where technology actively supports people instead of overwhelming them.

We’ve summarized Jan Gronefeld’s insightful interview with Samuel Reimer (Business Development at Ottobock) for you:

Exo-What? Active, Passive, Smart.

Jan: “Trying things out in the Experience World was impressive. All of my colleagues said the same thing, ‘I want to give that a go!’”

Samuel: Indeed, exoskeletons do come with an impressive ‘cool factor’ if you can put it that way. Even at college, lots of students were interested in the topic of the human-machine interface, how humans can be turned into superheroes.

The key to success is not necessarily in producing highly complex and technically flamboyant cyborgs to give us superhuman powers. The greatest value even today is offered by wearable assistance systems that significantly reduce the physical burden in production, assembly, logistics and many other physically intense professions.

This way of connecting people with technology can help humanity. And it should!

The keyword is ergonomics — where the automation of workplaces reaches its limit, exoskeletons provide a crucial solution for many people.”

Jan: “Before we get too deep, can you please explain the technical background?”

Samuel: “Workplaces today, for example in production, assembly and logistics, are extremely dynamic and fast-paced. Stationary robots and fully automated assembly systems go hand in hand with extensive implementation and high implementation costs. Hence, they are often not economical and are vulnerable to changes within internal processes.
Exoskeletons, on the other hand, are incredibly flexible. In principle, they’re orthotics worn directly on the body to support people, or certain extremities, in specific situations.”

Jan: “You call these systems Wearable Human Bionics at Ottobock, right?”

Samuel: “That’s right, yes. Bionics stands for “biologically inspired engineering”. Our products live from over 100 years of biomechanical expertise, which we use in our exoskeleton development. Our developers are well aware what power and supportive measures are helpful in which areas of the body, as well as how these systems should ideally be worn on the body. The technology itself is often simple. But specific implementation for various body shapes, sizes and weights, as well as the alignment of the perfect level of support, is highly complex.

Jan: “In my research on exoskeletons, I’ve come across two different types - active and passive.”

Samuel: “Research has been separating exoskeletons into these two categories for a while now. Motorized “active systems” don’t just provide support — they can also increase the wearer’s physical strength. These systems are limited to the current state of technology. Here too, the exoskeleton should be made as compact and lightweight as possible and give sufficient support without the wearer feeling restricted in their everyday movements.”

Jan: “Of course - the extra weight comes from all the necessary batteries, electronics and actuators. And the sensors have to react in real time…”

Samuel: “That’s right - and that’s exactly the reason why we are currently still using passive motor technology. Support is provided by spring and pully elements that save energy situationally. During activities, the power is then returned to where it is needed most.

Even though we already have a great deal of know-how internally — just look at the highly innovative, active C-leg from Ottobock — we take a rather “conservative” approach, unlike some of our competitors. But we center our focus on actual customer needs. Alongside protecting the body, these are maximum support at the lowest possible weight, no restriction of movement, subtle design and, last but not least, easy usability.”

Man wearing the Paexo Back from Ottobock in a production hall.
The Paexo Back by Ottobock. Image: Ottobock

Jan: “That sounds understandable. What’s irritating me is the lack of connection. Smart factories gain life from the constant exchange of data between different parties Your exoskeletons don’t seem very communicative?”

Our Paexos are becoming smart. The key here is active communication in the IoT environment.

Samuel: “No digitization just for the point of it! Currently, our Paexos communicate in the classic way, i.e. through people. Of course, digitization is not passing us by. We just don’t want to create exoskeletons for the point of it. Through our very close customer interaction and regular communication with end users, user needs are transparent and accessible for us. We can therefore tailor resources and know-how in research and development to this knowledge. In my opinion, basic functions will remain “passive” for a while yet. Digitization will let us switch to “active” in the near future.”

Jan: “That’s what I wanted to hear.” (laughs)

Samuel: “An example: Additional sensors, for example, would let us quantify how much burden certain workplaces put on workers and what improvements exoskeletons can achieve. An essential information when it comes to establishing a concrete return on investment. A conclusive statement that I think sums up our philosophy well:

“If you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it!”

Jan: “Data collected by sensors must be an important key in the further development of your Paexos. Active communication with the IoT world opens up a completely new dimension of product ideas and business models, right?”

Samuel: “Absolutely: Digital Twin and Digital Service, Exoskeleton Fleet Service Hub, Exoskeleton Data Hubs for Third Parties, Predictive Maintenance, Pay-per-Use billing models and much more. The possibilities are enormous.”

User Acceptance - Humans Take Center Stage

Jan: “Let’s stay on the topic of user acceptance. What have you done up to now to ensure the system is intuitive? To make sure the user has fun and trusts your products?”

Samuel: “The short answer is: we ask ourselves what the customer needs or might need. As already mentioned, our developers are in regular communication with our industrial partners, to test their latest functional prototypes on site. Close, ongoing work on and with users throughout a test phase over several months provides us with valuable feedback. This knowledge is then condensed with all stakeholders, and iteratively incorporated. This might sound familiar to you...”

In heavy industry, at home or at work: successful products have a mission. They solve problems, create added value, evoke emotions. To achieve this, all production steps follow a purposeful strategy.

It’s the same in our projects. Curious? Our strategy page provides a compact overview of our services. Find out more here!

Jan: “Actually, your approach mostly complies with the Usability Engineering process under ISO 9241 and agile process models. That’s definitely the right path. What else?”

Samuel: “As I already mentioned, physical factors like weight and freedom of movement are essential to the wearer. Nobody would be prepared to put on an assistance system that limits natural movements too much. The same goes for pressure points and skin irritations due to the weight or its support, which might be adjusted wrongly.”

Jan: “Both aspects have been solved really well in the Paexo Shoulder in my opinion, and the supportive effect is remarkable. The Paexo Back is also a great assistance system. At the same time, it feels considerably more solid. In our experience, rejection or enthusiasm often arise in the first few moments of use.

At this point, a digital guide could actively dissipate any reservations. After all, not everyone has a Samuel at their side to explain things.”

Samuel: “Comparable to the in-app onboarding processes for modern consumer products? That sounds very exciting. Of course, we are already making use of comprehensive digital training options. But we are naturally always ready and willing to further perfect this process.The latest sensors could help find the perfect fit for the user. A memory function, like those in cars, could help to optimize the system at the touch of a button. Ottobock could also better shape the first contact points with its products, and learn from this direct feedback channel.”

Health and safety officers are probably quite rightly asking: What does it do to the body?

Jan: “Acceptance is created through explanation. And Ottobock is doing quite a lot in this area.”

Samuel: “Absolutely. We actively involve essential stakeholders, such as health and safety officers, ergonomists, regulators, scientists, doctors and, of course, customers. After all, this is a new technology.

As part of our PR work, we’ve founded multiple virtual fairs - ExoDay and ExoMeet - with representatives from health and safety, industrial businesses and end users. We’re also investing lots of energy into effectiveness, simulation and long-term studies to document the effectiveness of our products and to use this for developing the market further.

In my experience, subjective acceptance is the be all and end all. You can prove everything with studies. But if a member of staff doesn’t want to wear it, managers and excecutives will quickly run out of arguments.”

Future & Summary

Jan: “We are slowly reaching the home stretch of our interview. What would you like to leave our readers with?”

Samuel: “People are the key. I think it will take a very, very long time for machines to fully replace humans in terms of intelligence, versatility and ability to react. And as long as this is the case, the industry will always come up against the limits of automation solutions and will have to seek solutions elsewhere. The human factor and the question of how technology can support - not replace - humans have to take center stage in the discussion. Of course, we will carry on down this path.

Connection is important in order to take part in the digitization cosmos as an active member. Mechanically speaking, our Paexos are already State of the Art. But I’m certain: active-digital Paexo exoskeletons are an important driver that will speed up the whole thing even more.

Data and visualizations that get across what exactly the exoskeleton is doing are an important piece of the puzzle for Paexo-Vision. Our next step will be to visualize the powers and burdens at workplaces. To this end, we need the sensors we talked about at the beginning.”

Jan: “You must know the saying: technology is a reflection of society? Do you have an ethical code that you follow?”

Samuel: “My philosophy is: no digitization just for the sake of it. What’s much more important is the awareness of what long-term added value we can initiate for the user, but also for health and safety officers and managers.

We’ve achieved a lot in a short time. And the community is completely behind our ergonomic solutions. But we still have some things left on our list. It shouldn’t be boring either. Being able to ride this first wave of a technical revolution is great. It's simply an incredible feeling.”

Jan: “A great closing sentence. Samuel - thank you for a lovely chat and exciting insights.”

Paexos in Action

If you’d like to find out more about Ottobock and exoskeletons, Samuel recommends the videos on the Ottobock YouTube channel:

By playing the video, personal data is transferred to the operators of the video portal (Youtube or Vimeo). Further information can be found in our privacy policy.

About Dr. Samuel Reimer

Dr. Samuel Reimer is responsible for the Business Development of Ottobock’s Paexo Portfolio. After studying Medical Engineering in England and North America, he did a PhD on wearable assistance systems and exoskeletons at the Technical University of Munich. He then moved into strategic consulting at the Boston Consulting Group before moving to Ottobock. Find out more about him on LinkedIn. The Ottobock product page has more detailed information on the Paexo portfolio.