Manufacturing engineers are attacking some of the industry's most complex problems by focusing on a simple one - making it easier for workers to build cars and components.
As health care costs mount and competitive pressures to build cars and trucks faster increase, the industry is trying to make building a car easier on workers' backs and wrists.
Engineers at automakers and supplier plants face the challenge of eliminating the root cause of workplace problems. The industry is attempting to eliminate repetitive motion strain that comes from turning bolts for 40 hours a week. Engineers also are taking aim at the spine and muscle-related complications that come from reaching up to hoisted vehicle chassis or bending over into cockpits and engine compartments.
The effort to make assembly lines flow more efficiently goes back to Henry Ford's constant tinkering with his Model T shop floor. But now the stakes are higher. The U.S. work force is aging. By 2010, 51.4 percent of the labor force will be over the age of 40, according to the Census Department. In 1980, 61.4 percent was under 40.
Older workers, fewer injuries
Older workers may be more experienced and skilled, arguably resulting in fewer mistakes and accidents. But they also are more vulnerable to maladies and muscle strains. Workplace injury equals plant inefficiency and lower profits.
And it goes beyond that.
Honda also has a new design for handcarts that requires less pushing force, left.
The problem "is a lack of talent," Chaffin asserts. "It doesn't really solve anything to go into the factory and fix things once they're built. Our engineers have to create manufacturing processes that are human-friendly from the design stage, and they just aren't trained to do that. The reality is that most engineers don't know how to address the human dimension of manufacturing."
Chaffin is conducting a national survey of engineers to gauge ergonomics awareness and training. According to his initial numbers, only about one engineer in 10 has any training in ergonomics.
Shared by all
The Big 3 may be feeling the bite of the problem the most, but the threat also looms large among the transplant automakers and their younger work forces. At Honda Motor Co.'s newest U.S. assembly plant in Lincoln, Ala., the average age is about 35. But Honda engineers spend much of their time looking for labor-easing ideas.
As Pilot SUVs roll down the year-old production line, lift-assist arms enable workers to load bulky and heavy objects, such as cockpits and spare tires, into the vehicle with little effort. But starting with the launch of the 2005 Odyssey minivan at Lincoln, Honda declared that any part weighing more than 25 pounds should be considered for lift-assist tools.
"Automation is a big solution for physically difficult jobs," says Chuck Ernst, vice president of manufacturing at Honda's plant in Lincoln. "But it's a real challenge to be able to automate body assembly. The modules we work with change with every model design. So lift-assist tools are the more likely source of help here.
"The challenge with assist tools is that they really have to do what they're supposed to do," Ernst adds. "I mean, they have to provide a fluid movement, just like natural extensions of the human body. When you move an object, it has to be totally natural, or it will become just another difficulty for the associate. People won't use them. So that puts a lot of responsibility on our engineers to make sure the tools work for people of different height and different builds."
Ernst acknowledges that, just like the Big 3's, Honda's work force continues to age. At Honda's first U.S. auto assembly plant in Marysville, Ohio, the work force averages between 40 and 41 years of age. Simplifying and improving factory operations not only benefits plant productivity, it also protects the health of employees, Ernst says.
Last month at the annual Applied Ergonomic Conference in New Orleans, Honda's Alliston, Ontario, assembly plant showed attendees a new design for the rolling carts that carry parts to the assembly line. By making the carts roll easier, Honda reduced the incidence of shoulder and back injuries. Honda saved $1.66 million from reduced injury costs and improved shipping efficiencies.
The same conference featured a presentation by Ford Motor Co.'s assembly plant in St. Thomas, Ontario. Ford's workers complained that the overhead chain in the plant's E-coat paint line was becoming clogged with paint because it received an electrical charge and became part of the electrostatic paint flow. Most troubling, workers sometimes injured themselves while trying to unclog the chain.
By adding an additional chain to the process, they eliminated the charge. That reduced the clogging problem.
Ford's gain from the exercise: a $244,000 reduction in medical costs, a reduction in lost time for chain repairs and a gain in the number of vehicles moving through the paint process.