“Our new exoskeleton prototype has an onboard computer that enables real-time monitoring of various metrics, including gas contamination of the surrounding air, temperature and light conditions, operating modes, etc. All the data is transmitted to a mobile device or a corporate network.”
Nornickel Digital Lab and the Southwest State University (SWSU, Kursk)
Nornickel Digital Lab and the Southwest State University (SWSU, Kursk) have reached the final stage of their joint project to develop exoskeletons. Nornickel starts manufacturing a pre-production prototype with a number of smart features.
“Our new exoskeleton prototype has an onboard computer that enables real-time monitoring of various metrics, including gas contamination of the surrounding air, temperature and light conditions, operating modes, etc. All the data is transmitted to a mobile device or a corporate network,” said Sergey Radkov, Project Director.
The production will start with a batch of 20 smart exoskeletons. Exoskeleton is a frame made of light and durable materials and attached to a body to reflect the biomechanics of human movement. Industrial devices are designed to lift, move and hold weights, while also helping to reduce load in static works. Exoskeletons are used to prevent occupational injuries and improve operating efficiency. Nornickel’s prototypes can carry up to 90% of the lifted weight.
In the 18 months of ongoing research and development, Nornickel Digital Lab has significantly improved the initial exoskeleton concept. The exoframe’s weight has been reduced by 25% to 18 kg thanks to the use of light materials. Upgraded fastenings have made exoskeletons easier to wear. The current version also boasts gravity balancers and electric drives.
In addition to its own production sites, Nornickel piloted the exoskeletons at facilities owned by Russia’s majors such as Severstal, Gazprom Neft and RUSAL, all of which provided feedback on how to improve the technology. Total test time exceeded 600 hours.
According to Sergey Radkov, the developed exoskeletons are primarily intended for internal use. He claims that in March a new batch of five smart prototypes will be sent to Norilsknickelremont, part of Nornickel’s Polar Division. To live up to that challenge, the facility’s employees completed professional improvement training at the Kursk site of SWSU and became the first Russian workers certified as industrial exoskeleton operators.
Apart from this, Nornickel is also planning to offer new exoskeletons to external customers. According to the Federal State Statistics Service of Russia, some 5 million of Russian workers aged 15 to 72 are exposed to physical exertion in construction, mining, production and transportation, with occupational musculoskeletal disorders causing not only health damage but also significant economic losses each year. The All-Russia Research Institute of Labour found out that compensations paid to employees in 2018 exceeded RUB 116 bn. In combination with the costs of lost time injuries, insurance payments and early retirement pensions, total annual losses amounted to RUB 1.67 tn.
Russian market players show a strong interest in the exoskeleton technology. The prototype presentation that took place in Kursk in October 2019 was attended by some 60 representatives of 12 companies, in particular, Severstal, Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works (MMK), EVRAZ, United Metallurgical Company (OMK), Rosneft, NLMK Group, Gazprom Neft, Rosenergoatom and many other. This February, Kursk hosted a dedicated exoskeleton presentation for Metalloinvest, after which the potential client decided to send its workers to be trained as exoskeleton operators. Apart from Metalloinvest, Severstal and Gazprom Neft, ALROSA, EVRAZ and a number of companies from the CIS (including Eurasian Resources Group) have demonstrated a close interest in the new technology.
Exoskeletons have a wide range of applications in healthcare, sports, construction and production. They can be either passive (based on the use of springs and counterbalances) or active (electromechanical, hydraulic, pneumatic, mixed type, etc.). Depending on the type of power supply, exoskeletons can be autonomous and non-autonomous. They are also classified by structure into lower-body, upper-body and full-body.
Exoskeletons are widely used in western countries. They are developed in the USA, Japan, Israel, Germany, China and South Korea, and used by car manufacturers such as Ford, BMW, Volkswagen Group, Audi, Honda Motor and Hyundai Motor, ship-building and aircraft engineering companies, including Boeing, and electronics producers (Samsung, Panasonic Corporation, Siemens AG, etc.). The global exoskeleton market is valued at over USD 200 mln, with annual growth rates exceeding 40%. By 2026, it is expected to reach USD 4 bn.
Import of foreign-made exoskeletons into Russia is restricted as they are recognised as dual-use items. Meanwhile, the Russian exoskeleton market is only starting to emerge. Apart from Nornickel, the technology is being tapped into by Exorise, Useful Robots and EkzoAtlant. In January 2019, Severstal bought 30 X-soft exoskeletons from Exorise. Exoskeletons are also employed by Sberbank and Volgabus. In addition, the demand is gaining momentum in the healthcare industry: in 2019, exoframes were tested by surgeons in Rostov-on-Don and Volgograd during long operations.