Every company wants a cool origin story and Skelex is lucky enough to have one. It all started before Gaurav Genani founded Skelex. This was back in the day when Genani was actively performing with his band as a guitar player, before starting a successful business. However, after a niggling wrist injury, which revealed itself every time he went on stage, coincided serendipitously during writing his master’s thesis on musculoskeletal disorders amongst musicians at TU Delft.

"Gaurav became focused on improving the human body," says Ivar de Wit, European sales manager at Skelex. "His professor was already working on exoskeletons and Gaurav wanted to design something to protect the upper body."

Adapt and design

In 2013, Skelex was born and De Wit came on board last year to direct the product’s commercialisation with the expertise he acquired while working for a major multinational. "We call ourselves a scale-up," De Wit says, "which is more than a start-up as we already have our first product on the market and are commercialising it."

Applications change, people change and markets change, so the suit has to adapt.

While the design and roll-out of the product have not been without challenges — not fitting correctly, restricting movement or being too heavy — the company has overcome the trial and error processes and calls the Dutch military, Airbus, KLM and Bilfinger its clients.

The exoskeleton went to market in November 2017, but Skelex places great importance on R&D, regularly seeking feedback from clients. "Applications change, people change and markets change, so the suit has to adapt," De Wit explains.This is why the company currently outsources the production of its exoskeleton to another Dutch organisation as, due to its rapid rate of growth, it wants to remains fully responsive to demands.

Go Dutch

An example of this is the Dutch Navy using the exoskeleton for welding jobs on its vessels. Within the first few weeks it sent the suits back because they had been burnt. With the resources to improve design, Skelex now makes fire-retardant suits as well.

It’s this responsiveness that makes Skelex a player of choice for military markets, with the Dutch Ministry of Defense funding it to design and develop specific products for their needs. So far, Skelex has made the greatest impact on the automotive and aerospace markets, but because of this, it has appealed to the military market too as a tool to use while maintaining vehicles. Consider that this 3.75kg exoskeleton – which in its second iteration, to be released early next year, will weigh 2kg – provides users working overhead with the ability to handle 4kg of extra weight per arm.

Carbon springs in the suit run along the wearer’s back. The built-in tension means that when the workers lift their arms up, "it’s like they’re floating on water", De Wit quips.

"It’s a bicycle for the arms," De Wit says. But this is not to be confused with equipment to enable heavy lifting. The exoskeleton’s weight-bearing powers kick in gradually as wearer starts to lift his arms up, and supports the wearer’s arms when performing repetitive motions in overhead positions, while making it natural to perform other activities as well.

"Our suits feel natural, not like being a robot," De Wit explains. "After a few days of using it, users don’t feel like they are wearing anything, but it will protect them from injuries and keep them happier in their work."

Protecting workers makes the exoskeleton an intriguing proposition to insurance companies, with which Skelex has started to work with in The Netherlands. It essentially allows workers to keep their hands above head indefinitely, but "only if they want to", De Wit jokes.