Ergonomics Is Solving Automation's Pain Points

Manufacturing processes and technologies are changing faster than ever before, as a result of rapid innovation cycles, the need to bring products to market more quickly, and the economic pressure to produce more and do so faster and at lower cost.

Given this heated environment, manufacturers struggle to keep ergonomics programs aligned with the realities on the shop and warehouse floor and at other points on the value chain. Usually implemented as part of the environment, health and safety (EHS) function in a company, such efforts are often inhibited because of organizational siloing. In addition, EHS departments are sometimes seen as "~safety police' who function more to slow down production than to actually improve conditions for employees.

However, manufacturers are beginning to see strong ergonomics programs as a means, not just to improve the lives of workers, but to improve manufacturing productivity as well. For example, a recent study of the EHS landscape among manufacturers by Cambridge, Mass.-based LNS Research found that growing numbers of manufacturers have decided to manage EHS more holistically and to integrate safety and health measures more thoroughly across their organizations. In those companies, the top strategic objective for improving EHS performance is, in fact, to improve operational performance. That was the objective cited by 22 percent of progressive survey respondents in LNS's study, coming in ahead of achieving regulatory compliance and improving corporate culture and sustainability performance.

Across its global operations, GE sees ergonomics as a means to "protect its workforce, create a safe and productive environment [and ensure the optimum conditions for innovation," according to a report from System Concepts, a London-based ergonomics consulting group. GE's ergonomics program is an element of Global Star, the company's health and safety effort. GE employs System Concepts to conduct ergonomics training and to identify high-risk sites at its global operations. The ergonomics team conducts a risk assessment at such sites, then uses the Six-Sigma based process DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) to implement an improvement program.

Bosch Rexroth, a German drive and control manufacturer, asserts that "ergonomics can have a direct impact on the bottom line." In a paper on factory ergonomics, Rexroth defines ergonomics as "the study of ... human interaction with the different environments we encounter in our daily lives." In a factory setting, the primary focus is on human interaction with machinery, from simple hand tools all the way up to large, sophisticated production machines.

Rexroth company health and safety experts point out that circumstances such as having to maintain a poor posture, having to overreach for tools, or working with inadequate lighting can result in workplace stress, repetitive strain injuries, back pain and other problems. The frequent result: lost time, poor productivity, poor health and morale, and higher costs.

What's more, ergonomics has an impact on product quality, according to the report, mentioning this scenario as an example: "If an operator on an assembly line is stretching to use a hand tool and a bolt is fastened at an angle, greater stress is placed on these elements, potentially leading to failure and a reputation for inferior product quality."

Rexroth's report offers extensive guidelines for improving ergonomics in eight key areas:

  1. Body height and working height
  2. Work area
  3. Reach zone
  4. Parts presentation
  5. Range of vision
  6. Lighting
  7. Adjustment of work equipment
  8. Planning and design tools that support ergonomic workplace design

In its report, Rexroth discusses some of the company's own innovations in factory ergonomics. For example, the company's production environments include "sit-down/stand-up" workstations that allow employees to work at the same height whether they are sitting down or standing up. This means workers can change posture when needed, reducing stress and improving performance. The company's component-based workstations and seating are designed to be completely conformable and adaptable to the employee and the activity, to allow the worker to maintain correct posture and reduce fatigue.

How ergonomic workplace design can play out on the factory floor is illustrated in the experience of water technology company Xylem, based in Rye Brook, N.Y. Xylem decided to improve the ergonomics of a production line at Jabsco, a UK subsidiary that produces toilet systems for marine vessels. The company hoped to improve productivity and reduce health and safety risks for its employees at the same time. System Concepts, mentioned previously, conducted on-site investigations that included task analysis on the production line, observations and interviews with operators. Ergonomics specialists consulted with Jabsco engineers to develop a rig that would reduce lifting required on the production line. System Concepts provided training and consultation directed at both risk reduction and productivity improvement.

As a result of these efforts, Xylem was able to implement a newly-configured assembly line that achieved a 50-percent reduction in lifting of ceramic bowls, the heaviest component of the product; eliminated stooping to pick inventory; and eliminated a risky two-man lift of assembled toilets above head height. Through such efforts, the company decreased its rates of sickness and absenteeism, as well as levels of musculoskeletal and visual discomfort, along with fatigue and stress. At the same time, the line's throughput was increased by 10 percent, with fewer errors and customer returns.

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