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Automakers and McMaster University join forces to improve assembly line designs for workers

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A research team at McMaster University is using computer avatars—similar to those featured in 3-D movies like Avatar and Toy Story—to help North America's largest car manufacturers reduce repetitive injuries on the assembly line.

The three-year, $1 million project is being funded by Automotive Partnership Canada in collaboration with Ford Motor Company of Canada, General Motors (GM) and Chrysler Canada through the United States Council for Automotive Research LLC (USCAR)—the collaborative automotive technology company of the three automakers in the United States (U.S.). USCAR conducts cooperative research in areas where all companies can benefit, such as ergonomics, advanced batteries and vehicle recycling, among others.

In this project, researchers are using computer simulations and models to replicate the physical machinations autoworkers go through each day. The goal is to create predictive tools that engineers can use to design assembly lines, in Canada and around the world, that reduce the physical stress of jobs and improve product quality.

"The assembly lines of today are not the same as 50 years ago," explains Allison Stephens, Chair of USCAR's Ergonomics Task Force and ergonomics engineer at Ford Motor Company. "Features like DVD players and satellite radios, for example, mean that workers are installing many electrical connectors. This type of repetitive work can put strain on the neck, wrist, elbow and shoulder. This research will help us to understand people's limits so we can design ergonomically healthier workplaces."

This is where McMaster University's expertise comes in. With support from both the Canadian and American autoworkers unions, employees are outfitted with motion-tracking technology and asked to perform a series of work-related tasks. The McMaster University team, led by Jim Potvin, Peter Keir and James Lyons, then use the same technologies found in Hollywood 3-D movies and video games to create male and female avatars of varying sizes.

"Our goal is to refine these digital human models to predict shoulder and hand strength, muscle fatigue levels and carpel tunnel pressures that would result from various tasks. It will show us the limits of what various people can and cannot do," explains Dr. Potvin, who has been collaborating with Stephens and Ford Motor Company since 1996.

These new prediction tools will be used by company engineers at the computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) levels to design workstations that don't overload any one muscle group. Previously, problems would be noticed after the assembly line was built, making any retrofits both difficult and expensive. With computer simulations, companies can identify problems two to three years before the vehicle is ready to be made.

"At the design stage, we can still ask for changes like better hand access," says Stephens. "But you need to make these changes before the engineers have frozen the design."

In addition to fewer workplace injuries, Stephens says an ergonomically based workplace will save companies millions of dollars in healthcare costs. It will also mean fewer errors on the shop floor, which translates into higher quality vehicles.

"The USCAR ergonomics team has done a good job at making the financial case for doing this research," says Dr. Potvin, "and not just on reduced injury claims. If someone is not tired then the quality of their work will be higher which means less warranty claims, less rattle and noises and happier customers."

Stephens adds that while the engineering for all three companies is done in the U.S., most of the data collection for the research will be carried out in Canadian facilities. Autoworkers in this country will also benefit.

"The results of this research will begin hitting production floors across North America within three years," says Stephens. "That will have a direct impact on autoworkers in both Canada and the U.S.". Those impacts will likely also extend well beyond Ford, Chrysler and GM.

"One of the advantages of working with Ford all these years is that there have been no restrictions on my freedom to publish my findings," adds Dr. Potvin. "That means the benefits of this research can be adopted by any industry sector."