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International research project SOPHIA uses robotics to make workplaces healthier

Across Europe, 40 million workers suffer from muscle, joint and nerve pain caused by physically demanding tasks. Moreover, such musculoskeletal disorders are the cause of as many as half of all absences in companies and therefore cost a great deal of money. Innovative robots, cobots and wearable exoskeletons that can relieve that work and make it healthier are therefore a major economic and social challenge. The EU-funded SOPHIA project, in which the University of Twente is participating, will develop a new generation of cobots and soft exoskeletons over the next four years.

Safe hybrid workplace

A lot of lifting, bending or certain repetitive actions lead to physical discomfort that make work unpleasant. SOPHIA targets the design, integration and evaluation of innovative robotics applications that remedy this. The ultimate goal is to create a safe hybrid workplace for human and robot. In this way, two major challenges are offered an answer: firstly, to create healthier workplaces with less absenteeism and, secondly, to make more productive companies and thus a stronger economy.

SOPHIA stands for Socio-physical Interaction Skills for Cooperative Human-Robot Systems in Agile Production. Led by the Italian Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, it brings together 12 partners from six EU countries, specialising in robotics and social and physical interactions in the workplace.

The University of Twente is one of the research partners in the project, while also Enschede based company Hankamp Gears is involved. Researchers of the Neuromechanical Modelling and Engineering Lab and Wearable Robotics Lab within the Biomechanical Engineering Department of the UT’s faculty of Engineering Technology focus on developing soft exoskeletons and digital human twins (i.e. digital representations of the worker’s body). These two developments will provide workers with soft lightweight exoskeletons that can be worn in full comfort and be controlled as a natural part of their body. The goal is to demonstrate that this new technology can be tested in real factory settings to protect workers from musculoskeletal injuries.


The other 11 partners of the SOPHIA project are: Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (coordinator of SOPHIA), Università di Pisa and Istituto Nazionale per l’Assicurazione contro gli Infortuni sul Lavoro (Italy), Université de Montpellier (France), Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Belgium), Bundesanstalt für Arbeitsschutz und Arbeitsmedizin, IMK Automotive GmbH and Deutsches Institut für Normung (Germany), as well as companies such as Volkswagen Sachsen (Germany), HIDRIA (Slovenia) and Hankamp Gears (the Netherlands), where the researchers will be able to extensively test the various solutions being developed within SOPHIA. The project has been awarded a 6.5 million euros grant from the EU’s Horizon2020 programme (H2020-ICT-2019-2/ 2019-2023). 

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L.P.W. van der Velde MSc (Laurens)
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