July 30, 2015 | By Kira

When Henry Ford founded his eponymous auto company over a century ago, he not only revolutionized how automobiles are made, but the entire global manufacturing industry. His concept of a fast-paced, highly mechanized and non-stop assembly line became the benchmark for how standardized, low-cost goods such as American automobiles could be manufactured on a mass-scale, dramatically improving productivity while reducing the level of skilled labor required. While ‘Fordism’ today isn’t always seen as a positive (assembly line work is often considered dehumanizing, and the repetitive movements can lead to serious injury), the idea of using modern technologies to optimize every aspect of production is still at the heart of the company.

Ford has revealed that since 2003, it has reduced its assembly line worker injury rate by 70 percent by using ergonomics research, 3D printed simulations, virtual manufacturing, and other data-driven process changes. The company’s actions have made working safer for over 50,000 employees, with over 900 virtual assembly task assessments made before each new vehicle launch. “We refer to our assembly line employees as ‘industrial athletes,’ due to the physical nature of the job,” said Allison Stephens, technical leader for assembly ergonomics at Ford. “We have made data-driven decisions through ergonomics test that has led to safer vehicle production processes and resulted in greater protection for our employees.”

A 3D printed model measures how much hand space is available for employees with various hand sizes

Unlike automotive designers who focus on the vehicle’s look and performance, Ford’s team of virtual manufacturing and ergonomic experts focus on design feasibility (i.e. can this vehicle be made on a mass-scale in our factories?) and the safety of the employees on the production line. Not only is assembly line work physically demanding, requiring extremely repetitive movements that can lead to injury, but a malfunctioning machine can easily ensnare a hand or entire arm. In order to reduce the chances of such injuries, as well as employee fatigue and strain, Ford ergonomists virtually simulate the entire build process using both human and virtual test subjects to asses the risks and physical labor required.

Virtual reality workstation of a Ford assembly line

Three core technologies are used during the virtual assemble task assessments: 3D printing, full-body motion capture, and immersive virtual reality. In order to validate hand clearance for employees with various hand sizes, particularly for tasks that require precise and detailed work, Ford’s ergonomists 3D print full-scale and completely accurate models of certain assembly line machines to test how tight the space will be. The results from these tests have proven to be more reliable than virtual simulations and help to drive better production decisions.

Immersive virtual reality and full-body capture 'immerses' the employee directly into a future workstation while gathering valuable data

With the full-body motion capture, more than 53 motion-capture markers are placed on an employee’s body in order to see in full detail how their arms, back, legs and torso interact while they work. More than 50,000 data points are collected to reveal muscle strength, strain and imbalance. Finally, immersive virtual reality uses a 23-camera motion-capture system and head-mounted display to immerse an employee in a future workstation. The results from these tests take into account the worker’s safety and productivity, as well as the vehicle design’s overall feasibility.

“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 Gary Scheirman, vice president for applications engineering at the Motion Analysis Corporation. “Using similar technology, Ford can develop state-of-the-art, safe working environments for its employees and produce better vehicles for its customers.” Take a look at the video below to see how its done.

Virtual Manufacturing Story via Ford

These virtual assessments often begin two to three years before a new vehicle launch in order to ensure that the assembly process is certifiably safe and optimized before the first vehicle even rolls off the line. So far, Ford has virtual manufacturing techniques to improve more than 100 new vehicle launches, including the 2015 Mustang, F-150, and 2016 Explorer. 

Until factories become completely mechanized, assembly line work will remain an essential part of the global manufacturing industry, and protecting employees must be a topmost priority. Of course, all of this data-collection and task-assessment is not just about Ford’s altruism and goodwill towards its ‘industrial athletes’—fewer employee injuries and optimized workstations means increased labor productivity and higher economic gains for the company overall, making this a win-win for Ford. Nevertheless, a safer work environment is a huge positive, and we hope that more manufacturers that rely on physical labor will make use of 3D printing and modern technologies to improve safety conditions for their hard-working employees.


Posted in 3D Printing Applications



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