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A new lift-assist technology intended to take some of the strain off workers' backs has made its way to Region steel mills.

Michigan City-based D. Martin Enterprises is distributing the MULE-R to help workers install refractory materials in steel mills in a more safe and ergonomic way. It installed the automated device, which lightens the load of refractory bricks and other heavy materials, at NLMK at the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor in Portage.

D. Martin Enterprises Director of Communications Cory Martin said it has "exceeded expectations."

HarbisonWalker International and Construction Robotics teamed up to create the device, which uses a vacuum gripper to lift concrete refractory blocks in tight working spaces.

“Anyone who’s ever lined a steel ladle knows it can be physically demanding. The safety and workforce benefits of this technology for our installers and customers are tremendous,” said Don Abrino, senior director of outside technology and open innovation. “As proven in the construction industry, the MULE-R greatly extends a worker’s ergonomic range, reducing the likelihood of strain and injuries, while allowing for greater productivity, efficiency, and an improved work environment."

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The free-standing device was explicitly designed for heavy construction, especially in refractory installation environments. Unlike some industrial automation, it's not meant to take anyone's job.

“We’ve designed the MULE to work alongside humans, rather than replacing them. Our innovations are borne out of finding ways for workers to benefit from a machine taking the physical strain out of the work, or increasing production speed,” said Scott Peters, president and co-founder of Construction Robotics. “We’re excited to innovate with HWI to deliver refractory solutions. With so many similar challenges in materials handling, serving the refractory industry is a natural extension of our mission to develop affordable, leading-edge robotics and automation equipment."

The current iteration of the product can be used for argon oxygen decarburization, electric arc furnaces, or ladle installation. It likely will be adapted for other applications over time.

For more information, call 219-299-4575 or  219-872-8211, or visit www.dmartinent.com.

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.