Porsche, BMW, Lamborghini – what qualities do these automobile brands bring to mind? Fast. Sleek. Sexy. And what do these automakers have in common with manufacturers, of all stripes, in the US? A human workforce with bodies that can sustain injuries, just like American manufacturing workers who can sustain injuries.
Take a look across the pond at some of the creative ideas and products European automakers employ to increase the ergonomics on their assembly lines and drive down worker injuries.
1. Power assist
In Germany, Porsche and BMW are using exoskeletons to support workers, especially for jobs that involve raising the arms above the head. Exoskeletons do not necessarily increase a user’s strength; they increase endurance and prevent injuries from repetitive motion.
Adapted from military use for soldiers and originally applied in the medical field for rehabilitation and augmentation, most of the exoskeletons used by automakers are relatively lightweight, passive contraptions. Some are worn like a vest or a backpack to support the lower back and/or raised arms, while others attach to one’s legs or arms or hands.
For a report by the National Safety Council on exoskeletons and their use in preventing on-the-job injuries, visit https://www.safetyandhealthmagazine.com/articles/17370-exoskeletons-in-the-workplace.
2. A little help here?
In Germany and Italy, BMW and Lamborghini are using small and table-top collaborative robots (cobots) for a variety of tasks. They are used, for example, to lift and hold heavy items so that a worker can make fine adjustments or attach components to an auto’s chassis.
Unlike huge industrial robots that need their own “safe zone” and require elaborate programming, cobots are designed for side-by-side work with humans. For some of them, programming can be as simple as manually guiding the cobot while it learns its job’s steps and maneuvers.
For a white paper on the use of cobots and reducing worker injuries, visit https://www.assemblymag.com/ext/resources/images/2019/UR/UR_Workplace-Injuries-White-Paper-Final_May2019.pdf.
3. Red light, green light
In one of Porsche’s German locations, the plant floor is mapped with traffic light color-coding that indicates each work station’s ergonomic profile.
Using the red-yellow-green color scheme, areas that are ergonomically tough on the body are mapped in red (and are also identified as areas in which improvements should be made). Work stations that are quite comfortable from an ergonomic perspective are coded with green, and areas that require a medium level of strain – like one might exert at home – are marked with yellow.
Porsche employees at this plant rotate among the work stations, usually on an hourly basis. With the color-coding in place, plant managers can easily create rotation schedules that vary the physical demands on workers and give every body a breather.
4. Nice set of wheels
At the Porsche plant, some assembly line workers zip from one car chassis to the next in rolling swivel chairs. These are not the typical wheeled office chairs; they are customized and include arm rest-mounted holders for tools and small parts.
These employees work on the undersides of Porsches which are held aloft by a conveyor system. The ergonomically-designed chairs allow workers to roll beneath a vehicle, grab the tool and part needed from their arm rest caddies, lean back to do their job on the undercarriage and then roll back out again. No more squatting, stooping or kneeling, craning the neck to see, and carrying or fetching tools and parts.
In Italy at the Lamborghini plant, little mobile robots – robotini, Italian for “little robots” – ferry supplies around and handle housekeeping chores.
The robotini, known in the US as autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) or mobile robots, are deployed to move parts, tools and supplies around the facility. Some of them clean the floor, perhaps similar to an industrial version of a Roomba. They relieve their human co-workers of some of the mindless, labor-intensive tasks that subject bodies to wear and tear.
Like those used by Lamborghini, many AMRs are low-slung platforms (for a low center of gravity) on wheels. They can be outfitted with a variety of shelves, bins or custom-made accessories. The robots have visual sensors for avoiding obstacles and preventing collisions so that, once programmed with the layout of a facility and a schedule, they can cruise around on their own to make deliveries and pickups.
Don’t let the sexy Europeans have all the fun. Gain inspiration from their innovations, add some American ingenuity and take ergonomics in US manufacturing to the next level.