Ford claims to have has reduced the injury rate by 70% for its 50,000 US factory workers and those in other global plants over a dozen years.
This has been achieved with new ergonomics technology, lift assist devices, workstation redesign and data driven process changes since 2003.
“We refer to our assembly line employees as ‘industrial athletes’, due to the physical nature of the job,” said assembly ergonomics chief Allison Stephens. “We have made data-driven decisions through ergonomics testing that have led to safer vehicle production processes and resulted in greater protection for our employees.”
The focus is on two key areas – design feasibility and the safety of employees on the production line.
Two to three years in advance of a vehicle launch, ergonomists virtually simulate the build process using both human and virtual test subjects to assess the physical labour needed to build a vehicle. In an effort to reduce and help prevent employee fatigue, strain and injury, the data collected is used to guide engineering innovations prior to implementing tasks on the production floor.
On average, ergonomists complete around 900 virtual assembly task assessments per vehicle launch, centred on three core technologies – full-body motion capture, 3D printing and immersive virtual reality. Each provides critical data used to evaluate the overall safety of the assembly process for employees while maintaining high vehicle quality.
Full-body motion capture provides data on how an employee uses his or her body to move and complete tasks. Through more than 52 motion-capture markers placed on an employee’s arms, back, legs and torso, ergonomists can record more than 5,000 data points to evaluate muscle strength and weakness, joint strain and body imbalance. Similar technology is used across professional sports to improve athletes’ techniques and help them avoid injury
3D printing is used by an ergonomist to validate hand clearance in the vehicle assembly process in those instances in which virtual simulation yields unclear results. Employees with various hand sizes use the 3D-printed model to test how tight the space will be in vehicle assembly – which helps to drive better production decisions
Immersive virtual reality uses a 23-camera motion-capture system and head-mounted display to virtually immerse an employee in a future workstation. Then, the employee’s movements are evaluated to determine task feasibility and proficiency
“Motion tracking technology has been used for more than 30 years to quantifiably assess the technique of athletes and reveal where they may be susceptible to injury from overuse or from forces that will damage tissues,” said applications engineering head Gary Scheirman. “Using similar technology, Ford can develop safe working environments for its employees and produce better vehicles.”
Ergonomists have worked on about 100 vehicle launches globally using virtual manufacturing tools. Through a significant spend on the programme, the automaker said it had achieved a reduction in employee injury rates and a 90% reduction in such ergonomic issues as overextended movements, difficult hand clearance and tasks involving hard to fit parts.