What do you do when you’re trying to improve competitiveness across an industry? If you’re one of the big three automotive manufacturers in the United States, you turn to ergonomics.
That’s what Ford Motor Company, General Motors Corporation, and DialmerChrysler AG are doing as of December 2004 when together they entered into the U.S. A-TEAM partnership, a joint effort by the three companies, along with the United States Department of Commerce and the United States Council for Automotive Research (USCAR) to help boost the profitability of the U.S. automotive industry.
The U.S. A-TEAM (Alliance for Technology and Engineering for Automotive Manufacturing) is focusing its efforts to improve automotive manufacturing productivity through a handful of technological and engineering methods, but one of the keys to the program is ergonomics – chosen in part to help reduce the cost of injuries but also because, as Glenn Jimmerson, Manager for Safety Reliability and Virtual Manufacturing at Ford told The Ergonomics ReportTM, because good worker ergonomics makes good financial sense for a business.
“We were looking for areas of potential collaboration,” Jimmerson said, “places where we could we find non-competitive arenas that would improve profitability. Ergonomics was one those places.”
“If we look at sound ergonomic design, it improves the worker environment and workstation to give [an organization] a greater capability of reducing injuries, lost time, and absenteeism,” said Jimmerson. That, he said, translates into productivity and general profitability.
Ergonomics isn’t a new concept in the automotive industry. On the consumer side, today’s cars are filled with enhancements that make for a more comfortable and safer drive. For example, Volvo, a division of Ford, released a concept car last year that included a peek at the future of custom-fit vehicles. The system, called Ergovision, would allow a Volvo buyer to be body-scanned at the dealership to determine the proper positioning of the seat, mirrors, pedals and other integral adjustable features in the car. That anthropometric information is then fed into the vehicle’s memory which, at the touch of a button, would position the car’s adjustable features in the correct location for the driver.
In the automotive manufacturing realm, ergonomics also has a long history. “You can trace [automotive manufacturing ergonomics] back to Henry Ford and the moving assembly line. Bring parts to the person not the person to the part. Design your operation so that the person doesn’t have to bend over or get into an uncomfortable position,” said Jimmerson.
But for a time, improving ergonomics to match the technological advancements of manufacturing wasn’t always at the top of any of the manufacturers’ to-do list. Injury rates, particularly musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) increased; pressure from both government and labor to make greater efforts to address ergonomics was felt throughout the automotive industry. Why? Said Jimmerson, “Few companies do something just because it’s the right thing to do.” A greater focus on automotive manufacturing ergonomics had to be shown to make financial sense as well. “Most companies [act] because it’s the right thing to do from a profitability standpoint,” he said. And aside from lowering the costs associated with MSDs, ergonomics makes any workplace, manufacturing or otherwise, run more smoothly, improving the quantity of work and the quality of the goods delivered, lowering absenteeism and creating an overall better work environment.
If it seems odd that three major competitors would venture into a joint partnership to improve everyone’s profitability, it probably is. But, said Jimmerson who is chairing the ergonomics portion of the partnership, when talks started in September 2004 regarding the U.S. A-TEAM partnership, ergonomics was one area known for improving profitability that wasn’t seen as competitive, but was seen as integral to financial success.
How will they do it? Said Jimmerson, it’s a matter of determining overlapping areas among the three corporations. Human motion, human simulation and prediction of human capabilities, for example, are aspects of the automotive manufacturing industry that each of the three companies would like to see more energy put into the research and development of. Human simulation, said Jimmerson, is particularly useful in determining outcomes and the effect of work on the worker, but the current technology isn’t as effective as it could be. “When you’re using a modeling tool to do ergonomics analysis, the more it looks like a real world environment, the more confidence people have in the outcome it delivers,” he said. Making improvements to human simulations across the industry will allow each of the manufacturers to better understand how their own work system can be changed to make it function better with the worker.
Additionally, finding more information about the average autoworker will help make the workplace more accommodating, too. “There are a number of databases on anthropometry, but a lot came from military. It’s based on a pre-defined population — you have to be a certain size and condition to be in the military. We need some data on what the real world population looks like, and some detailed simulations that we don’t have enough research on, like how much force can a person exert using a pinch grip, for example,” said Jimmerson.
Jimmerson expects to see some of the shorter-term goals of the U.S. A-TEAM partnership reached in the next two- to three-months, with longer term goals being actualized in the next two- to three-years. Plus he expects to see the benefits of an automotive industry-wide ergonomics initiative felt outside the walls of Ford, GM and Chrysler: suppliers and consumers should benefit from the partnership as well. For suppliers, industry-wide research will create a sense of conformity in the manufacturing process that will make the suppliers’ jobs simpler. And for consumers, said Jimmerson, the benefit will be in the trickle down effect that reduced manufacturing costs have on the price of a product. “[Manufacturing ergonomics] is a noncompetitive thing to do to, but if [Ford, GM and Chrysler] all pay for research individually, it’s a cost that’s passed on to customers — it has to be absorbed into product.” When the three companies pool their research efforts, each one benefits through reduced research expenses and greater resources available for developing ergonomics improvements to enhance their operations. The lower overall cost of the end-product is then passed on to consumers. In other words, improving automotive manufacturing ergonomics through the U.S. A-TEAM partnership should turn out to be a win-win situation for everyone.
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2005-01-05.