The bionic joint: the solution to workplace injuries?

by Chloe Taylor02 Dec 2014
A reduction in workplace injuries could become a reality due to research being conducted at the University of Auckland.

The University of Auckland’s Bioengineering Institute (ABI) are working in collaboration with the Fraunhofer research organisation in Germany to construct artificial human exoskeletons which are designed to prevent workplace injury and assist stroke patients.

The collaborative project, called The Bionic Joint, will produce a device with the ability to sense and assist arm movements. This is designed to be used to help perform repetitive tasks or lift heavy objects – which could reduce the risk of injury for workers whose tasks include manual labour.

HC spoke to Thor Besier, associate professor at the ABI, about the project.

“There are a few different applications for this device, including the workplace environment,” Besier said. “In an environment where workers undergo heavy lifting, this is designed to take some of the load. The project is about assisting what’s already there – so assisting able bodied individuals in the workplace.”

“This is a great example of technology giving us more leverage to each employee's performance,” Jon Windust, CEO of Cognology, told HC. “We've done some research recently looking at the average value of employees at Australia's largest companies and it's very clear we're seeing the value and impact that individual employees hold is rising. This is a great example of how technology can help both employees and employers improve performance and productivity without putting anyone out of a job.”

Besier added that the intention of the project is not to replace human capital.

“The technology from the project could transfer onto ‘replacement’ limb models, but for now our project doesn’t encompass that,” he tole HC. “It’s a three year project – by the end of those three years we hope to have a prototype,” Besier said. “This field is moving ahead really quickly. The long term result – if it’s a success – will hopefully see it become a commercial product.”

He clarified that this will not happen for quite some time, and pondered the possibilities that the success of the project could open up.

“Workplace injury is a big issue,” he added. “By the time we develop this technology it could be applied to any joint. It could also lead to workers being able to lift much heavier things – I know of others working on these types of exoskeleton products.”

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