23 August 2022
Many innovations and measures have made working on the track less difficult. But we are not there yet. Working on the track remains physically demanding. At Strukton Rail, this means that the issue of physical strain has a high priority. “We aim to keep our staff healthy right up to taking their pension and beyond,” says Ben Kosse, managing director of Strukton Catenary Europe (SCE), the Strukton Rail unit concerned with overhead lines and bearing structures. Ben is always looking for ways of keeping his people fit and healthy. “We do a lot of work on awareness and supervision, but innovations that improve working conditions are at least as important.” You need to take the long-term view with certain innovations. Developing an exoskeleton for working on overhead lines is an example of this.
Ben and his staff began developing the exoskeleton for overhead line work as long ago as 2018. As a catenary engineer, you work above chest level a lot, and this has an effect on your back, upper arms and shoulders. When you are young, you don’t really notice it, but as you get older you start to feel the effects that result from all these difficult body positions. The exoskeleton eases the load of work in which you use your arms intensively, especially with work at chest height and higher. Your arms are supported in special ‘cups’, and as soon as you start to lift something above chest level, the exoskeleton’s springs are automatically activated. A number of practical trials soon showed that an exoskeleton is effective with overhead line work. Engineers feel their arms becoming weightless, and that makes lifting or using a spanner considerably easier.
The exoskeleton eases the load of work in which you use your arms intensively, especially with work at chest height and higher.
So, test passed, you might think. Just order them and get to work! But things are not that simple. The practical trials showed that with the existing exoskeleton, the downward movement generated too much resistance, with the result that it required additional energy in certain cases. It was also clear that wearing the exoskeleton along with fall protection was extremely difficult. And fall protection is absolutely essential when working at heights. However, the total overall weight of the two sets of personal protection equipment must not become so heavy that they once again cause problems for the technician. After a number of sessions with suppliers, Ben and Strukton Rail Nederland director Tjark de Vries made their way to the Robohouse in Delft in June 2021 with the question: “Could you help us to design an integrated exoskeleton with fall safety harness that is also integrated into the work clothing?”
The outlines of an integrated design of this kind are now ready. The design may be viewed at the InnoTrans trade fair being held in Berlin between 20 and 23 September. It will then come back to the Netherlands for further development. Ben: “We anticipate being able to trial an initial prototype in practice by the end of 2023.”
The development of the exoskeleton is just one of the many innovations at Strukton for improving working conditions. Over recent years, Strukton Catenary Europe has already introduced new power screwdrivers for avoiding torch cutting and chromium 6, lighter fall protection harnesses, Neotecs (innovative elevating platform for the tracks) hoisting yokes for keeping contact wires up and a special scissors hoisting platform on a wagon (HBW Light), by means of which working at height can be done more safely and ergonomically. “There is a high level of acceptance for new tools in our team,” Ben says. “There is an awareness among young people as well that you need to treat your body with care. We in the organisation are able to help in this regard by easing the workload wherever possible.”