Meet the AI-powered Cray X German Bionic exoskeleton

Billions of people have jobs that require heavy lifting, and most of them will lose health and ability over years of repetitive stress. German Bionic thinks its Cray X bionic exoskeleton, powered, by AI, will not only help workers do their jobs safely, but also help others: sick, injured, or old.

Cray X helps workers lift with 66 pounds of lifting support, and uses rechargeable batteries so you can wear it all day. It’s built with carbon fibre so it’s light, and it’s built-in AI learns your patterns to assist better.

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Best part: at the end of the day the AI tells you how many tons you’ve lifted and what you’ve done … essentially gamifying work.

See my story at Forbes

Or check out my chat with German Bionic CEO Armin Schmidt …

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TechFirst podcast: Cray X German Bionic exoskeleton


Transcript: Could wearing bionic muscles become normal?

(This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

John Koetsier: Are you ready to cyborg yourself? You already do, to some extent. You’ve outsourced part of your brain to Google, maybe some of your housework to Roomba. But what about wearable tech that makes hard things easy … lifting heavy weights, for instance, repetitively all day long.

Could wearing bionic muscles become normal?

To answer that, we’re chatting with Armin Schmidt, CEO of German Bionic. His Cray exoskeleton is in use by BMW and Ikea, and is coming to the U.S. Welcome! 

Armin Schmidt: Nice to meet you, John. Thanks for having me.

John Koetsier: Hey, it’s a real pleasure to have you here. Let’s start off right at the top. What is the Cray exoskeleton? 

Armin Schmidt, CEO of German Bionic

So the Cray X exoskeleton is the first fully connected exoskeleton.

I think exoskeletons you might saw in Alien or in other movies, such as Iron Man, but what we are doing is basically we don’t want to create a superhuman, we want to empower the human in certain daily life tasks. And what we are focusing on at the first step — so we with the Cray X supporting the human with a back exoskeleton, which means every time when the human lifts something, which is happening a lot of times in a lot of different industries, it takes away the burden up to 30 kilo, which I think is 66 lbs roughly.

So every time when you lift something, it really reduces the stress to your body. And this is what we want to empower [inaudible].

John Koetsier: I kinda like the idea of being superhuman, honestly, and so I wouldn’t say no to the full on Iron Man experience. You kind of hint at it there, you’re taking 60, 70 pounds, 30 kilos off of somebody’s back.

Why do we need an exoskeleton? People have been working for millennia … what’s the purpose for it now? 

Armin Schmidt: Very good question. So basically, when you look into — so the trend obviously over the last year is that companies try to automize certain kinds of tasks, fully automize/automate them. And actually, most of the time the use cases are either too difficult to fully automize, otherwise, or basically sometimes also the human is actually much more effective in doing certain tasks. And more, also to say, more affordable, I would say, than like a fully automated logistics center, for example.

And that brings us to the point where we say we don’t want to replace the human, we want to empower the human to be part of — now and also in the future in a lot of different use cases where you constantly have repetitive tasks.

So interestingly, this was very similar what also Elon Musk said when he showed his vision of a full AI-driven human robot. Basically the tagline was: How about there is something which takes away the repetitive, boring tasks? So this was the logic behind that. And actually, yes, certain jobs are not very exciting, nevertheless they have to be done, first of all. And secondly, by supporting the human he actually has a lot of fun with that.

And this comes to the point gamification and also the fully connectivity, so not just that the device supports you and you feel that it supports you, you also see what is happening. It’s a little bit like the Fitbit tracker or Garmin watches or something.

So basically you really see what is happening and then, end of the day, when you see you lifted several — actually the customers who just mentioned it, they have an average weight lifting of, I would say, 10 to 15 tons per day per human. And actually we reduce it by at least a third or even half … and this is quite significant. 

John Koetsier: That sounds very significant. I worked in construction when I was in university, working my way through university, and so I’ve done lots of repetitive stress stuff. Sometimes I’ve tried to add up in my workout, how many pounds or kilos have I lifted in a weight workout or something like that.

It’s interesting to hear that you’ve lifted some tens of tons and that the machine has taken some of that off. How long does that last, I mean, is there a replaceable battery? How does this work? Does it last all day long? 

The latest version of the German Bionic exoskeleton is stronger … and waterproof.

Armin Schmidt: Yeah, so if you look at exoskeletons, there are passive and active ones. So we are in the category of active. So, passive exoskeletons mean they use some kind of spring system, similar like you have in the fitness center — so basically you first create energy and then release it — so this is quite, I would say, simple mechanics.

But what we do with active exoskeletons, we have a battery which empowers the device, and we have motors and gears, and this is kind of the sweet spot where we include energy or support the body with additional energy. So this is the key.

So basically, good question what you asked: How long can such a device be used? So, right now it’s roughly up to eight hours, nevertheless, you have a battery which can be exchanged on the fly. So basically it’s a normal Makita battery which you also use for drilling machines. So very easy to change, very affordable.

So no time [limits] so you could actually work 24 hours with a device.

Nevertheless, we see normally that our customers work maybe two hours max and then there’s a break, obviously, so you need to take some rest. But this is basically, there is no limitation from the hardware side, it’s more that we work together with the human to have the best kind of team basically together. 

John Koetsier: Talk a little bit about what it feels like to wear this. What do people who are using this — how do they experience it? Do they feel more powerful? Is it a little bit exciting, especially initially, and how does that extend over time?

Armin Schmidt: So we have, one of our customers is actually an airport in Europe and they are users.

One of them actually told us and also to some media outlet once, since he used the device, he’s capable to play in the evening again with his daughter. So basically he had such problems with his back every evening that he really had some trouble having a quality of life.

And this is basically, we were very proud of that, of course, you can imagine, but this is really the feedback we get from the users. So they really not just have a number in the end, they really feel it on their body that it takes away a lot of stress, a lot of problems they have with their lower back/upper body, which is one of the key signals basically in logistics or construction or any other very hard work. And humans need to do that, and we kind of empower them to be more healthy and more effective basically also. 

John Koetsier: That makes me hopeful that we won’t get more bags destroyed by baggage handlers in airports [laughing]. They’ll be stronger so they can actually take the time and care and not toss it down.

Does it have chafing issues? I mean, like, I’ve seen it, there’s a pack on your back, it’s strapped to your arms and to your legs. How do you manage that so that it doesn’t hurt somebody after an 8-hour shift? 

Armin Schmidt: So, first of all, the device to put on takes, if you’re used to that, maybe 20 seconds. If you do it the first time, maybe it’s 50 seconds up to one minute, and to take it off it’s just five seconds because you need like a small belt and you can unplug it.

So it’s very easy to put on and off, and actually because of the straps, it’s very comfortable. So basically it’s very comfortable to wear and you don’t feel, even though of course the device has a little bit weight, but it’s like a backpack you wear and you have it on your hips so you don’t really feel the weight. You just feel the advantages of the device.

So, back to your question, it’s very comfortable to wear and we didn’t see any problems so far. 

John Koetsier: You mentioned off the top that in some sense people are kind of gamifying work … they understand maybe how many times they’ve bent over, how many times they’ve lifted, how much weight they’ve lifted, those sorts of things.

And you’ve got some machine learning, some AI going on here. Talk a little bit about what’s happening, what the device is learning, how it’s improving, and what people are taking out of a day of work.

Armin Schmidt: Absolutely. So the device itself is, since beginning of 2020, fully connected. So it’s always on.

We push software updates, so basically the device gets new functionality, new features, and on top of that, it learns how you move and it learns how you react, what’s your body type, and if you’re a little bit more strong or if you need more support. So the device is really adjusting the power and the movements to support you based on your profile, and it’s getting better and better and better.

This is what we see from customers where they say, ‘Oh, there was another software update, now it’s even more smooth.’ And actually, it’s really kind of part of your body. And I think this is where it’s heading. So basically, the idea of exoskeletons that it’s really part of your body and it supports the weak points of your body.

I give one analogy which I like actually, is it’s a little bit like glasses. So if you think about it before the 19th century, there was no mass market for glasses, but when glasses really became a mass market, not just that the quality of life from actually over billions of people — I think right now it’s two point something billion people who wear glasses — was significantly improved, but also the quality of life and their work, right? So basically when you’re 40, 50 and you cannot see so well anymore, in the worst case, you need to stop your work because you cannot do that anymore.

This is the same logic with exoskeletons.

So we are, of course, focusing at that point to the upper body/the lower back, but there are also a lot of other areas of the human body which we can empower and also for different use cases. So, we are logistic today, but why not B to C sport, for example, when you’re running, when you’re skiing, or actually for nurses, if you think about it, what kind of hard work they have to do every day in hospitals to lift the patients.

So there are a lot of use cases where the empowerment of the human is super interesting and we are very looking forward to the future. 

John Koetsier: I kind of love that analogy, because it’s not visible, but I’m wearing contact lenses. I did have glasses at one point in time and frankly, 500 years ago, I might be pretty useless at a lot of things with my weak eyesight, right? And so that’s enabled me to be a useful contributing person to society that I wouldn’t have otherwise and support others also.

That’s something I’ve actually wondered about, because there are people who they work every day for decades in physically demanding jobs. And what does that do to your body? What does that do — you mentioned your quality of life after work, but what about when you’re 55, as you just talked about, 60, 65, when you retire, what’s — what can you do, what can’t you do because of the damage you’ve done over time? That’s a really, really interesting use case.

Do you think that this will become sort of the new normal that people who are in these areas where you need the intelligence and dexterity and adaptability of a human to unique situations that you can’t necessarily program but you also want some extra oomph, some extra power, some support — think this will be the new normal in places like construction, warehouse duty, heavy manufacturing, and maybe, you mentioned healthcare, other places like that? 

Armin Schmidt: Absolutely. So, you know the dream of exoskeletons is quite old. l looked up on YouTube what are the first movies where you saw exoskeletons, and it’s a Dean Martin movie from 1960s. And actually, the dream about empowering humans was always there, and always with this kind of timing issue.

Over the last several years, the technology became so, like, more mature and available. And there are companies who are able to build such products that, back to your question, yes, definitely. So, I see a future where you have a variety of use cases, not just in work, but also for in your private life. It will be the normal that you wear some certain kind of exoskeleton, however it will be called.

But it’s part of your body, it enables you to have a higher quality of life, or to be more efficient, or to be more healthy, or actually to train your — when you go running or when you go skiing, it’s to support your legs.

So there are a lot of use cases and these kind of products are now capable to serve us because the technology is there. And that’s the interesting part, because Peter Heiligensetzer our CTO and also founder and co-founder, so basically he started to be part of this exoskeleton world in 2000 and now we have 21. So basically he’s working since 11 years on that. And I would say now in 2020-21, is the first time we have products which are really so mature that customers are very excited to use them and users are very excited to use them. So it went a long way. 

John Koetsier: I have to wonder how many people are in a wheelchair today that, with the proper exoskeleton, wouldn’t have to be there … that could be mobile. My mother is 86 and she still walks pretty much every day — quite a while, like five kilometers — and I wonder how long she can continue to do that, you know, as she continues to age, and will something like an exoskeleton continue to help her do what she loves, stay active to the degree that she can, while keeping her safe, right?

That is a very, very interesting use case. I have to ask here … the obvious question, and you’ve touched on it a little bit, because you said we want to make humans better at what they’re doing … but the obvious next step, potentially, at least in some people’s minds, would be to say, ‘Okay, hey, take the human out, build the machine, put the machine to work.’ How do you respond to that? 

Armin Schmidt: This is a bigger question, obviously, and I think there are certain kind of different angles how to approach this question.

I think our core of this company, and also my core belief is that we should enable humans to be part of the society. I totally disagree in replacing them completely.

I give you a good example: so, for example, in Japan when you’re getting older, then like the older population somehow will be given some kind of job. So either they just are on the side and wave to cars that they should stop or whatever, but they are part of the society. And so, the question is … also I quote the founder of Acer who once told me he don’t understand why we always want to replace humans. We have enough.

So I think we should really kind of make use of the intelligence and the human life and actually empower and enable them.

And this is what we of course try always with, let’s say, mobile phones or other things. Let’s try to support the humans and not just focusing on replacing them. This definitely will come in some use cases, but our strong belief is we want to be a company who will support humans to make their quality of life higher and actually what you just described, older people that they can walk longer … because we all get older, hopefully, so basically then maybe when you’re 100 years old one day, you’re still able to enjoy walking. It’s amazing.

I saw a video of actually one of our competitors in Japan who makes these kind of exoskeletons who make people walk again when they had some injury or are sick, and actually the people start to cry because it’s really — it’s amazing what you can do. And this is, I think, what we want to do first in one vertical and then we will go into others where we will bring value to the humans. And this is what I believe: If we can bring value, then of course also business works, if people accept that and are excited about it. 

John Koetsier: I have personally witnessed that. I was at a big startup center in Moscow a number of years ago, I think something like three, and there was person who was, I believe, quadriplegic — could’ve been paraplegic, I’m not a hundred percent sure — but did not have control and use of his limbs, and was in an exoskeleton and literally walking across the conference room floor.

Not incredibly well, the technology was not amazing yet, but there was obviously some promise there that there was something coming, and something good coming. Let’s turn to the crystal ball a second, you’re continuing doing what you’re doing … let’s assume that.

Let’s assume that you continue to improve the product … talk to me about five to 10 years out, where do you see the product? What do you see it doing? 

Armin Schmidt: So I strongly believe when five to 10 years — maybe, I think already in five years, so you will look out the window, you will look on the streets and you will see a significant amount of people who have such kind of device for different use cases.

So maybe an older population would just use it to help them to walk. You will have, I’m pretty sure also workers and for last mile delivery, if it’s still a human of course. But of course, in warehouses in certain kinds of tasks where there’s no full optimization it will be the standard, because also there are regulations and will be regulations, how much workload you should give to a human so then you’re supporting him — the person.

Then I’m pretty sure you’ll see a lot of people running on the street or making other kinds of sports and they have such kind of device on their body.

Then, I think, I even go so crazy say, when you will look maybe one day we will be really at the Mars, at the new planet, and actually, yes, there will be also exoskeletons supporting the humans to do certain tasks outside, because you need to have support when you’re in zero gravity, etc.

So there are a lot of use cases, more from the science fiction thinking, but also from the real life we see these kind of technologies getting adopted in mass market. And this is what we see right now, that we see over the last 12 months, 24 months, that there’s strong demand from customers. So basically it’s really kind of a lot of inbound, and when this comes, obviously there will be other companies and bigger companies who will enter the market. And then it’s getting very exciting because the whole market starts to take off, and this is what we see at this point. 

John Koetsier: Armin, thank you so much for this time. 

Armin Schmidt: Highly appreciate your time. Thank you, John.

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