February 6th, 2002

Intelligent Lift Assist Devices Increase Productivity and Reduce Ergonomics Risk

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“We spent a lot of money to install lift assist devices, but now nobody wants to use them. What should we do?” That’s a typical question we hear at Ergoweb, and we might finally be able to recommend a solution, thanks to a new technology called Intelligent Assist Devices (IADs).

Handling heavy or bulky items is a common activity in many industries, and also a common source of injuries. One solution to reducing worker exposure to such forceful exertions is to install an overhead hoist or other lift assist device. These devices usually consist of an “end-effector,” the part that connects to the load, and are suspended from a track or trolley above, which provides movement over a larger area. Often, if given the opportunity, workers will choose not to use these assist devices because they add more time to an operation than manually handling the load, or the devices create new undesirable force requirements, such as initiating movement and working against momentum to stop and position the load.

The IAD technology is designed to solve these problems by bringing speed and precision to the guiding, lifting, and positioning of difficult-to-move or difficult-to-manipulate items. IADs operate using intelligent microcontrollers, servo motors, and an advanced “sense/process/actuate” control concept.

Cobotics, a leading IAD manufacturer, uses “intent sensors” to “quantify the speed and direction of motion that the operator wants. This information is instantaneously processed, and proprietary algorithms then direct the IAD movement. This concept relies on the use of force-feedback to let a person work with a machine in a natural and intuitive manner.” According to Cobotics, their IAD “responds swiftly, yet smoothly to the operator’s touch, amplifying operator arm and finger movements. The operator notices no time lapse between the machine’s sensing and its response. A closed-loop feedback allows the IAD to adjust continually to changes in load mass and operator intent.”

Cobotics IADs are not meant to be a replacement for humans or for robots. Instead, “they represent a new class of ergonomic assist technologies that help workers in a wide variety of ways, including power assist, motion guidance, line tracking, and semi-automation. Using a human-machine interface, the operator and IAD work in tandem to optimize lifting, guiding, and positioning movements. IADs provide improved speed and precision compared with traditional ergonomic assist devices, which do not provide the advantage of intelligent controls.”

Cobotics reports that one of their automotive clients realized a 2 month payback by increasing productivity and reducing ergonomic risk exposures. Another recorded productivity improvements as high as 70%. The automobile industry was the breeding ground for IADs, but manufacturers are now ready to take the technology to other industries with manual material handling jobs.

Ergoweb has not reviewed or tested the IAD technology, nor do we know much about the company Cobotics, who supplied much of the information used in this article. However, we find it an intriguing solution to real, everyday problems in many industries. Wisely implemented, the IAD technology looks to be a win-win for workers and industry, and that’s what good occupational ergonomics is all about.

For more information on Cobotics and the IAD technology, visit http://www.cobotics.com



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