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Virtual manufacturing at Ford slashes worker injuries

Paula Friedrich
Michigan Radio

From the very beginnings of the modern auto industry, working on an assembly line has been physically demanding, and dangerous. 

But ergonomics experts at Ford Motor Company say an assembly line worker today experiences a lot less physical strain and stress – and is a lot less likely to be injured on the job – in part because of advanced ergonomics tools.

At Ford's new virtual ergonomics lab in Dearborn, 23 infrared cameras can capture every movement of an employee wearing special motion-capture markers. 

The markers are placed strategically on the person's joints, and the motions are captured and analyzed using a virtual avatar.

Credit Paula Friedrich / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Ergonomics engineers Kali Gewinski and Marty Smets demonstrate motion capture technology at Ford Motor Company

Ergonomics engineers can figure out if the force needed to install a certain part will be too difficult and risky for workers, for example, or if a space is too small to allow the average worker to install a part properly.

Allison Stephens says the tools have dramatically improved and sped up the process of analyzing assembly line ergonomics.

"We used to spend a lot of time in the real world," says Stephens, "building prototype vehicles, having operators work on them, asking the operator, 'Is this working for you?  Can you reach this?'  And all those awkward postures that go into assembling a vehicle."

Now, Ford can virtually immerse a worker in an assembly line environment using a head-mounted display

Credit Paula Friedrich / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Ford employee demonstrates immersive virtual reality with head-mounted display

that simulates the task in a future workstation.

"This is the same technology that professional athletes are using," says Stephens. "Just like when a pro golfer gets his swing analyzed when something's not going right, we use the same technology. And it's the same idea – we can analyze the actual motion, we can understand when fatigue will set in, when the stress on the joints will be unacceptable."

The tools mean many ergonomics problems like a twisted posture are caught long before a vehicle goes into production.

Ergonomics engineer Marty Smets says one of the biggest benefits is being able to predict the amount of force needed to perform a task. 

"These are forces the workers must perform every minute as a new car enters their work area," says Smets. Minimizing those forces means "they can enjoy a full career without an elevated risk of repetitive-strain injury. And we know when that person retires, they're going to be able to swing their grandkids around just like they're supposed to."

Credit Paula Friedrich / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Round reflective markers are placed at strategic points on the employee's joints in order to analyze movements

Jae Perry is one of the workers Ford brings in to the lab. She's a production specialist, troubleshooting  issues on the assembly line, and training employees to build new vehicles.

When Perry first came to the lab, "it was like being beamed in from Star Trek," she says. "Once they put the head display on my head, I was able to go completely (virtually) around the engine. It was as if the engine was right in front of me. I was able to find problems that we hadn't seen before. We were able to identify so many potential problems and get them fixed before we spent millions of dollars and went into production."

Ford says the virtual ergonomics tools have contributed to a 70% reduction in work injuries, a 75% reduction in employee time off due to work injuries, and a 90% reduction in ergonomics problems such as overextended movements, difficult hand clearance, and hard-to-install parts.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Radio. She began her career at Michigan Radio as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.