Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Magna's Bowling Green Metalforming plant is in Ohio. It is actually in Bowling Green, Kentucky. We regret the error.
Despite the sometimes-breathless promises of artificial intelligence, manufacturing relies and will continue to rely on human laborers, who are—for now—still often more capable and less expensive than robots. But that doesn’t mean manufacturers should ignore the impact new technology can have on talent. According to two engineers at Magna International, the science of ergonomics combined with advanced technology can come together to make work more comfortable and less dangerous for human workers.
Areta Lok, lead ergonomics engineer for Magna Body and Chassis, says ergonomics is essentially the study of human interactions with objects and environments—in Magna’s terms, objects like tools, and environments like part-picking stations. To ground this, Magna internally refers to ergonomics engineering as HFE or Human Factors Engineering.
“Ergonomics is really the science of figuring out how to design the environment to optimize the human’s performance,” says Lok.
Her colleague, Stephanie Bailey, health and safety area leader at Magna’s Bowling Green Metalforming plant in Kentucky, concurs. Unlike machines, human beings come in a bewildering configuration of sizes, shapes and mobilities.
An engineer by trade, Bailey points out that this variety makes designing standard workplaces for humans difficult: “Where do you find a happy medium? … Do you have to make a workstation that can adjust to each person that comes in there?”
Designing for Differences
Even small differences in something like height can create complications for a company trying to minimize employee discomfort and injury. At Magna’s Bowling Green Manufacturing plant, engineers experienced this firsthand in a work cell that was not optimized for some of the workers using it. Bailey recalls that in one area of the plant, employees were tasked with picking parts from a bin and placing them in fixtures for a robot to weld together. One employee, a taller woman, found the bin a little too short to be practical.
“The fixture sits lower for her because she’s taller,” Bailey explains. “So, she has to bend more” to pick up parts compared to her shorter colleagues. To accommodate her, Magna added adjustable risers to the parts bins, lifting them up and reducing back strain.
With height differences, Bailey notes that workstations could be made that adjust to each user, but other issues are not so simple.
“We have pregnant ladies out here,” Bailey says. “It’s a little struggle for them now because of the changing in their body. So, how do you kind of get accommodating to them, too?”
The difference is one of scale, as well. Physical differences in height, weight, strength and reach can all be quantified. Armed with the right information, ergonomics engineers can crunch the data to optimize factory spaces for all kinds of people by simulating how different people have to move to perform specific tasks.
Lok says these simulations are a feature in Magna’s international operations, thanks to how populations in aggregate can differ in certain ways across regions.
Going back to height, for example, Lok points out, “A tall person in Southern Mexico is different from a tall person in Northern Mexico.” Magna International has operations in 29 different countries.
To improve ergonomics in Magna’s factories internationally, Lok uses simulated puppets of differing proportions to anticipate how different groups are likely to interact with factory infrastructure, including the bins in Bailey’s plant. Those simulations allow Lok to analyze how a representative sample of body types behave in a specific environment before the company has to build it, giving her the power to optimize it for the people most likely to work there.
Right now, Lok is using simple puppets on a screen, but she says future operations could include technology to virtually place ergonomic engineers in the shoes of workers using, well, virtual reality. Lok recounts how virtual reality let her take a more personal approach to the simulation by letting her see a virtual workplace from the perspective of a simulated body that was very different from her own.
“I’m trying out this virtual reality integration with the simulation,” Lok says, picking up two virtual parts and placing them as a computer tracked her movement using six Velcro motion-sensors attached to her body. “The first time, I went in as myself, and I interact—pick, pick, place.”
It all seemed normal and natural, Lok says, until she tethered her movements to those of a differently-proportioned virtual body—specifically, a 95th-percentile-height man. It was a significant change of perspective compared to Lok’s own 5-foot-6-inch frame. Reaching down, Lok found she had to bend down much further before her new, much taller virtual avatar could reach the virtual parts in front of her. “It was actually like living in the body of a tall person,” she says.
Preventing Injuries with Precision
Ergonomics isn’t just interested in keeping workers comfortable, but safe: For part-picking employees, bending over too far isn’t just uncomfortable but a risk for injury from repeated strain or unnatural movements. Bailey says Bowling Green Metalforming is also using visual technology to keep workers safe by spotting parts of jobs that could be dangerous.
As part of her work overseeing Bowling Green Manufacturing’s health and safety programs, Bailey routinely fills out ergonomic risk assessments, or ERAs. Traditionally, these involve watching videos of employees at work, watching how they move while completing a given task and taking meticulous notes of possible ergonomic risks, joint by joint.
“For me to do one ergonomic risk assessment, it takes me an hour,” Bailey says. “You have to really sit down and watch the video over and over again,” paying close attention to every body part: “The neck, the shoulders, the elbows, the arm.”
ERAs can also be used to calculate corporate liability and are sometimes used to calculate the return on investment for replacing an existing worker with a robot. But since manufacturing still relies on workers remaining healthy and safe, they can also be used to improve human-centered processes and minimize risk to the employee’s health and safety.
That makes ERAs a valuable, but still time-consuming tool. Recently, however, Bailey has improved the ERA process at Bowling Green Metalforming by using visual technology in the form of an app from TuMeke Ergonomics to accelerate the process. Similar to motion-capture processes used in Hollywood, the program tracks the position of a worker’s skeleton, calculates ergonomic hazards and estimates return on investments made to improve the process.
Now, instead of each ERA taking a full hour of Bailey’s time, she says, “I have not had one take longer than two minutes yet.” And the app’s ROI calculations made it easier for Magna to identify and implement cost-saving improvements—including improvements that make jobs safer for human employees without replacing them.
“In the end, that’s why we’re trying to impact, right?” Lok says. Ergonomics engineers are just trying to “make a positive impact on just the everyday experiences of everyday people.”