Ford Motor Company calls its assembly line workers “industrial athletes.” The goal is for them to perform at the highest, most efficient way without suffering injuries.
In order to do that, Ford is going to great lengths to use ergonomics, which is the study of how to work better.
“If you are putting a part on a car on an assembly line, it is going to come down to what is an acceptable amount of effort to do it every minute,” said Marty Smets, ergonomics engineer for Ford Motor Company in a telephone interview. “If it is too difficult to do, they could develop some type of repetitive strain injury over time that can put them off work, or cause them not to fully secure a part or maybe we have quality issues.”
Since 2003, Ford Motor Company has invested more in ergonomics research to reduce injuries. The ergonomics virtual lab in Dearborn, Mich., has tripled in size.
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While automotive designers focus on a vehicle’s look and the customer experience, Ford virtual manufacturing experts focus on two key areas: design feasibility and the safety of employees on the production line. Ford ergonomists play a key role in reducing worker injuries by generating data that predict the physical impact of building vehicles. On average more than 900 virtual assembly task assessments are made for each new vehicle launch.
“My group,” Smets said, “focuses on the ergonomics of putting the vehicle together.”
A few of the things they research include the reach and the strength it takes to put a part on a vehicle.
“Will our shortest people on the assembly line be able to reach it?” Smets said. “Can we get our hands to it? Can we expect someone has the strength to put the part on the car?”
Before Ford retools a plant, like it did at the Kansas City Assembly Plant in Claycomo to build the new all-aluminum F-150 truck, it brings in an assembly operator to the lab, fits that person in virtual outfit and then has that person start performing the assembly duties for that vehicle.
The virtual outfit sends messages to a computer that Smets and the other ergonomics engineers work on.
“We bring in a product specialist and when we put that virtual reality helmet on them, they can look around them and see a partially built car with markers all over their body,” Smets said. “We are looking at it in virtual reality. Based on their expertise, we ask how would you approach it? I can harness the intrinsic knowledge they have and use it.
“From their posture, I can predict how much strength they need. When the operator goes to do it in two years, we are able to use the internal knowledge to optimize the process and reduce the risk of injury.”
An example of how the virtual manufacturing works at Ford can be seen by going to www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8Im8FHDe4E&feature=youtu.be.
“It is a digital representation of a person,” Smets said. “It looks like something you see on a computer game, like an animated character, but it is actually a complex, bio-mechanical model. These models allow us to predict things accurately in human capability.”
The process is helpful in several ways. One of the biggest is when Ford is ready for a redesign of a vehicle it has already tested the production of in the virtual lab.
“In our pilot plants, when we build cars for the first time, we are not seeing hand issues, hard-to-put-on parts issues because we worked on it in advance,” Smets said. “That is great. We don’t have to do late design changes, which are extremely expensive. We have also seen 75 percent reduction in away days as a result of such repetitive muscle strain issues and overuse injuries. We are not only seeing fewer issues on our vehicles, we actually have fewer loss days.”
Those statistics excite Smets.
“If you have been in a plant, you know it is hard work,” Smets said. “We have an obligation to make sure those jobs are safe.”