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Many of Europe's biggest companies are helping progress the design of an exoskeleton, which it is hoped could reduce injuries in the workplace at manufacturing sites.

As a project that sees 12 European institutions involved, has EU backing and is supported by Fiat, it is hoped that a working prototype will be available in just three years.

The aim of the project is to create a machine that can work with human input in heavy and complex tasks.

Whilst much of the automotive trade is automated, there are many tasks that are too difficult to convert. With complex decisions, movements and choices to be made, human workers are vital to the running of the line.

However, with weights and potentially dangerous products used, injuries can occur. The wearing of the right PPE workwear is essential in such environments, but the work is still hard and can cause long-term stress injuries too.

A UK Work Foundation study found recently that up to 44 million workers in the EU have been affected by work-related musculoskeletal conditions.

An exoskeleton could offer invaluable help in such an environment, with Dr Carmen Constantinescu, who is involved in the research, saying:

"It offers a hybrid approach in which the robotic parts support the human who can provide the decisions and cognition needed."

Already, there have been exoskeletons designs for military use; the US Army has tested such a machine to help soldiers carry heavy loads, for example. In Japan, they have also been used to help the infirm walk.

Many scientists are said to feel that industry is the next logical step for the technology.

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