Immersive Engineering = Improved Ergonomics


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Technicians at Lockheed Martin wear motion tracking sensors as they mime aircraft carrier deck tasks.

A large and growing part of safety engineering in factories—a.k.a. human factors—is a sharp focus on ergonomics and what it can tell engineers about injuries. The emphasis is on eliminating over-exertion and awkward work postures in repetitive factory jobs.

The solution is immersive engineering, which integrates virtual reality (VR), digital video and related 3-D technologies, computer-aided design (CAD), simulation and analysis, and solid modeling. These theater-like systems surround problem solvers with real-time engineering data presented digitally in life-sized displays with ergonomically accurate, motion-tracked avatars—digital humans.

Computerization and Ergonomics

These efforts mark a new safety push that comes on top of avoiding workplace accidents, especially around machinery, and preventing illnesses due to chemical exposure and excess noise. This new focus within factory safety is a direct extension of longstanding efforts to eliminate repetitive stress injuries such as lower back pain and carpal tunnel syndrome related to computerized office tasks. After four decades of office automation, nearly every office job has been computerized.

 
Information captured by the Lockheed Martin technicians animates digital avatars in simulations.Information captured by the Lockheed Martin technicians animates digital avatars in simulations.

Computerization has revolutionized factory work, too, along with myriad mechanical assistance devices, from simple counter-balanced lifters to programmable industrial robots in foundries, welding and painting. Hundreds of thousands of formerly onerous jobs have been made easier, even though so many jobs have been outsourced to low-labor-cost countries.

Much of the reason for the early initial ergonomic success of immersive
engineering relates to a unique strength of the technology. It lets ergonomists and other safety experts solve workplace problems working in the virtual world of the computer. Immersive engineering lets ergonomists work directly with engineers (mechanical, industrial, and manufacturing), productivity managers, and even cost-control staff.

Reaping the Benefits

The results are dramatic, as shown by data from vehicle assembly operations of Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, Mich. Ford has documented simultaneous reductions in injuries, fewer claims for compensation, shorter learning curves (getting new vehicles into production), lower cost for tooling changes, reduced production costs in general, and higher workplace productivity. The United Auto Workers and other unions support these efforts.

 
Allison Stephens directs a study of the physical exertion of an assemblyAllison Stephens directs a study of the physical exertion of an assembly task—installing a console between a vehicle's two front seats—at Ford's Dearborn Ergonomics Laboratory in Michigan.

Ford's premiums for worker's compensation insurance have fell by about 55% since 2000, to under $15 million for 2007 from an average of $40 million in the early 1990s. By far the biggest portion of the drop was in repetitive-stress injuries that ergonomic analyses play such a big role in preventing. This is backed up by company medical records that show dramatic reductions in injuries related to spinal compression, back and upper body strains, and shoulder/rotator cuff injuries.

At the same time, new-vehicle quality has soared five times more than the industry average. Ford now matches Honda and they exceed all other manufacturers. Product development times have shrunk eight to 14 months during the past five years. Cost details have not been released but across the industry such costs fall in line with product development time. In just one year, 2007, Ford new-vehicle quality soared an unprecedented 11%, measured three months after sale. The North American industry average was just 2%. In 2009, Ford added an immersive engineering system to its European operations.

Immersive engineering at FordImmersive engineering at Ford demonstrates body positions during installation of major components.

A similar system was installed late in 2010 at the Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. in Denver, Colo., to generate gains in the final assembly of satellites. That is Lockheed Martin's third immersive engineering system.

Key elements of these systems include Jack (Tecnomatix) and Delmia ergonomic and analysis software. The developers (respectively) are Siemens PLM in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Dassault Systemes in Auburn Hills, Mich. The leading developer of motion tracking and analysis systems is Motion Analysis Corp. in Santa Rosa, Calif. The leading systems integrator for immersive engineering is Mechdyne Corp. in Marshalltown, Iowa.

Jack Thornton is an independent writer.

Much of the reason for the early initial ergonomic success of immersive engineering relates to a unique strength of the technology.

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February 2012

by Jack Thornton, ASME.org