Automakers are using computer-simulated 'virtual factories' to weed out potential health hazards to workers.
Computer software now can insert animated human figures into a plant simulation and flag potential risks to workers.
The software points out who might be lifting heavy loads or reaching for a part, an action that might cause injury if repeated hundreds of times.
General Motors built a virtual engine plant to identify potential ergonomic problems at a factory now under construction in Kaiserslautern, Germany. GM's software simulation already had been developed to build a nearly identical plant in Tonawanda, N.Y.
The software became, in effect, a storehouse for the knowledge gained in building the New York plant.
With safety as a paramount goal, GM wants to eliminate ergonomic problems in simulation, not after the plant is built, said Clif Triplett, information officer in GM's Information Systems and Service unit. Computer simulations help avoid the time and expense that would be necessary to rip up new factories and correct mistakes.
'If you have a safety issue, you have to resolve it,' Triplett said.
The market for plant engineering software is growing at about 30 percent annually, said Jennifer Smith, an analyst with BancBoston Robertson Stephens. That growth is double the rate of increase for the entire computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing market, she said.
Software suppliers say the digital tools can improve the performance of production lines, reduce factory equipment downtime and speed up product and vehicle launches.
Chrysler, for example, used CATIA software developed by France's Dassault Systems SA to design a new Jeep paint shop last year in Toledo, Ohio. The software saved the automaker $3 million by catching more than 200 design mistakes before the errors made it off the drawing board.
In July, Nissan Motor Corp. signed a contract to buy up to $3 million in plant engineering software licenses from Tecnomatix Technologies Ltd., based in Herzliya, Israel, to speed development of what the automaker calls its Digital Factory strategy. The goal: Cut new product lead times down to 12 months from 20 to 25 months.
For ergonomic studies, users of the software can determine whether a worker can reach easily into a certain area of a vehicle to attach a part. Does a robot arm swing dangerously close to a worker's head? The software program can point out the danger.
Plant engineering programs, widely used in the auto industry, turn out to be reliable predictors of actual factory conditions, said Jeff Fryman, manager of standards development for the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Robotic Industries Association.
'The fidelity is quite good,' he said.
Fryman said the leading suppliers of software in the factory ergonomics field are Tecnomatix; Deneb Robotics Inc., a Troy, Mich.-based unit of Dassault; and San Jose, Calif.-based Silma, a unit of Adept Technology Inc.
Deneb's Ergo software has a number of built-in features that measure such things as cycle times for doing certain jobs, how much energy is used to perform a task and analysis of worker postures. Safety personnel can get involved in the early stages of factory planning, limiting costly and time-consuming fixes later on, said Brian Huse, Deneb marketing manager.
The software also helps companies eliminate the need to build prototype work cells.
'By doing it digitally, you eliminate a lot of the cost associated with physical prototypes,' Huse said.
When Rover Group developed its new Rover 75 sedan, the automaker used Robcad software from Tecnomatix to do ergonomic studies. The automaker said the software flagged 750 potential problems. The result, Rover said, was better quality and shorter lead times.
The Tecnomatix software can also be used to improve the operation of existing assembly lines and to identify sources of worker injuries, said Eli Dahan, marketing director for Tecnomatix North American operations in Novi, Mich. Using the animated human figures, the software can show where stress is building up in the joints and other areas of a worker's body as certain tasks are performed.
Thus, by improving working conditions and speeding factory planning, automakers can reach buyers faster with new products. 'It's not even an issue of money,' Dahan said. 'Today, what (automakers) cannot pay for is time.'
John Couretas is an Automotive News staff reporter based in Detroit