A new sliding seat and a spider-like tool are increasing satisfaction all the way up the production line at the Sterling Heights plant of Daimler Chrysler in Michigan. Assembly workers say the Happy Seat and Spider Fixture lessen their chance of painful musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and show the company is listening to them at last, while the company regards the two innovations as a means of producing a better automobile more profitably. One expert sees the new devices and recent organizational changes at the plant as evidence of a strengthening trend in the industry towards ergonomic solutions.
A Good Business Trend
For Greg Gardner, an associate at Harbour Consulting Inc, an agency with an inside view of many of the changes in the automotive industry, it’s a logical direction for the industry. “Ergonomics is not just something the automakers are constantly focusing on because of social reasons,” he explained in an interview in July with The Ergonomics Report™. “I mean there is a strong business case that the easier you make a given task along the line, the fewer injuries you have, the more efficient the operators can be and the simpler the assembly process can become.”
He observed that engineering logistics, in addition to productivity, drives the trend. Companies such as Chrysler, Ford and General Motors are purchasing more preassembled modules, he explained, and the instrument panel, the cockpit and “everything from the steering wheel to the heating and air conditioning to the air bags and the glove compartment come in in one piece.” This simplifies the process of attaching components inside the vehicle, he added. “Rather than having people who are lying on the floor and reaching through the windshield to fasten that instrument panel, you have an automated arm where you only need two people who effectively snap that module into place from outside the vehicle.”
A Happy Innovation and a Spider
The module approach doesn’t address all the challenges of assembling an automobile. Before the launch of the new Chrysler Sebring in 2006, according to an article in Detroit’s Free Press newspaper, hourly workers spotted one element of the vehicle’s design that promised to be a pain in the neck – and the back. The modular center console would require four screws to keep it secured, and a line worker would have to don knee pads to climb in and out of the vehicle interior many times an hour to accomplish the task. A worker pointed out the awkwardness and difficulties to UAW member Ron Hicks, who brought it up with management.
Work began on designing a chair that could slide people into the vehicle to give them easier access with less gymnastics, and the Happy Seat was born. Previously, body size and shape excluded some workers from tasks like this and increased the risks of MSDs for all.
The leggy Spider Fixture addresses a problem associated with another innately awkward task – the setting of front door glass and quarter glass for an open convertible body. Leaking windows can be counted on to irk everyone but convertible aficionados. The company sought to eliminate leaks in its new Sebring convertible, and engineers came up with a computerized long-armed device that mounts the vehicle and measures the space with lasers to make sure everything lines up properly. The Free Press article noted that Hicks and his team spotted a problem in the design – its innards hung downward and into the vehicle where the worker had to sit. The team recommended repositioning these elements on top of the unit. The recommendation was adopted, and the Spider Fixture represents the final design.
An advantage of both devices is flexibility, according to the Harbour Consulting associate, as it gives individuals “the ability to reach certain places without twisting … and putting oneself in positions that could lead to injury.”
A company news release in June noted that both devices have been incorporated into the production of all vehicles at Sterling Heights.
The Wide Picture
Chrysler describes the Happy Seat and Spider Fixture as industry firsts because they were developed jointly by management teams and a union “working together to meet the ergonomic needs of workers and vehicle production.” The plant is the home of United Auto Workers Locals 1700, 889 and 412.
The introduction of the management-union partnership to meet goals is part of a wider new strategy developed by the Chrysler Group, the news release noted. Called the Flexible Manufacturing Strategy (FMS), it allows the company to manufacture multiple products on one assembly line at the Sterling Heights plant and bring its new vehicles to market faster. The company’s assembly and stamping plants were extensively retooled, beginning in March 2006, to make the switch to the single production line model. An article in the same month in The Wall Street Journal admiringly describes the FMS as “supple.”
The news release explains that 620 new robots replace the previous vehicle-specific heavy tooling, and only the robots’ end effectors, or "hands," need to change in order to build the different models. That tool change is done automatically, within the time it takes to cycle from one vehicle to the next. A fourth model can also be piloted – or test-built – at the same time, helping reduce the time needed to make new-model changeovers.
The company describes the UAW-management partnership as the Workplace Organizational Model (WOM). Chrysler says the model increases the flexibility of the Sterling Heights workforce, while fostering greater creativity and innovation from plant employees. It is being implemented throughout the Chrysler Group’s Manufacturing organization in conjunction with the UAW. In addition to extensive training, the WOM promotes employee involvement in all facets in the design and processing of the work stations. “These changes provide a better work environment for employees and give increased support to assembly line team members while improving the Safety, Quality, Delivery, Cost, and Morale (SQDCM) principles,” according to the company.
The FMS and other organizational changes parallel a trend towards interchangeability in the workforce. Gardner classes the Happy Seat and its relative as “operator assist devices,” and points out that they aid rotation: “You also have a push towards training people to do multiple jobs so they can rotate, and it’s easier to do that when you don’t have jobs that require a lot of reaching and twisting that some people simply might not be able to do.” People are organized into teams of four to 10 workers, he added, and “the more you use those devices the easier it is for all of those team members to do each other’s jobs. Knowing if one person from the team is absent that they can easily fill in for that person – often it is the team leader who steps in for the absent person. They want to make each task simpler so that it can be standardized.”
The US A-Team Partnership
In December 2004 the three big United States automakers – Ford, General Motors and Daimler-Chrysler – joined forces with the US Department of Commerce and the United States Council for Automotive Research to form the US A-Team (Alliance for Technology and Engineering for Automotive Manufacturing), a partnership designed to boost the profitability of the US automotive industry as a whole.
A January 2005 article in The Ergonomics Report™ about the agreement observed that it focused on technological and engineering methods, but ergonomics was seen as a key to reaching the goals of the program. Glenn Jimmerson, Manager for Safety Reliability and Virtual Manufacturing at Ford, pointed out in the article that ergonomics has a long history in the automotive manufacturing realm: “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.”
Jimmerson, who chaired the ergonomics portion of the A-Team partnership when talks started in September 2004, noted that improving ergonomics to match the technological advancements of manufacturing wasn’t always at the top of any of the makers’ to-do lists. “Few companies do something just because it’s the right thing to do.” Ergonomics had to be shown to make financial sense, he explained. When the talks started, he added, ergonomics was seen as integral to financial success.
There is also prestige for the manufacturers in following the ergonomics path. In 2003 Honda of America took home the Ergo Cup for the best workplace ergonomics solution while Ford earned an Ergo Cup for training and education at the annual Applied Ergonomics Conference in Dallas. Honda’s award is for the company’s link arm adjustment jig, and it marks the second year in a row the company has earned the award.
Gardner credits the US A-Team Partnership with adding impetus to the reorganization of the manufacturing process at the Sterling Heights plant. “Again, it’s just good business to minimize the physical risk to the people in the plant.”
A Morale-Boosting Partnership
UAW members interviewed in the Free Press article describe the UAW-management partnership that underpins the Workplace Organization Model as a morale booster. They said suggestions for improvements had been made by workers in the past, but usually the concerns were brushed aside. "Before they would bring something in here, and you would see two or three years for engineering changes. I am seeing engineering changes now in two weeks to 60 days. That’s unheard of," said UAW committeewoman Sandra Dix. "It has taken morale sky high." Dix, who began working at the plant more than 30 years ago, said the changes are profound, noting that the workers are coming up with ideas to do tasks that they long had to do by hand even if they had complained about needing a better way.
The Happy Seat is just one of the first examples to pop out of the plant’s new team approach, which encourages workers to point out problems to their team for documentation on a white board, where the note remains until a solution is crafted. On the assembly line, Terry Kay, praised the Spider Fixture and also his coworkers’ efforts to make the job better. "We all like it. We’ve cut down on people getting carpal tunnel syndrome. It’s a lot safer. We’re not twisting as much," he said. "We’ve got a lot more voice than we did last time. We’ve got our problem-solving board. … Not only that, we can go to management a lot more freely. We can talk to team leaders."
Strong worker morale can be counted on to enhance every facet of the ergonomics trend at Daimler-Chrysler’s Sterling Heights plant.
Sources: Greg Gardner; Daimler-Chrysler; Detroit Free Press; Wall Street Journal; The Ergonomics Report™
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2007-07-12.