Image credit: Ekso Bionics
Once the realm of superheroes and cartoon characters, wearable robots have entered the mainstream. The passive robotic exoskeleton is typically used to provide support and strength to the wearer. Its more flexible counterpart, the exosuit, is being used to assist in mobility and improve operational efficiency.
Ford Motor Company is using these bionic technologies to alleviate physical stress for its factory workers, on the production line and at task-specific workstations. Frequent repetitive motion can cause stress on the body, and in manufacturing environments that can lead to worker fatigue and a greater risk of injury. Some assembly line workers lift their arms an average of 4,600 times per day, or about 1 million times per year. Robotic technology can provide them some relief.
Taking a page from video game designers, Ford asked employees to suit up in body tracking technology to improve their work game. Body tracking technology often is used by athletes seeking the slightest changes to improve their skills, and video game designers use the technology to mimic the movements of real-world athletes in their on-screen games.
Tested in Ford’s Engine Assembly Plant in Valencia, Spain, 70 employees in 21 work areas donned body-tracking suits in a partnership between Ford and Instituto Biomecánica de Valencia. Ford used the data to improve the ergonomic design of workstations in an effort to reduce physical stress for employees and improve manufacturing quality and efficiency.
The form-fitting bodysuit contains 15 small movement-tracking light sensors that connect to a wireless detection unit. The system tracked each employee’s movements, specifically focusing on head, neck, shoulder, and limb movements. The movements were recorded by four motion-tracking cameras, which were located near each worker, and the resulting data was used to create a 3D skeletal character animation of the employee.
In other facilities, body movements were tracked using more than 52 motion-capture markers attached to an employee’s limbs and torso. The 5,000+ data points provided information on muscle strength, joint strain, and balance to help determine how workers move and complete tasks.
The data was reviewed by trained ergonomists, who recommended posture adjustments to relieve physical stress for workers and ergonomic suggestions to help Ford tweak workstation designs to accommodate an employee’s height or arm length.
A New Suit of Armor
Since 2003, Ford has been focused on reducing worker stress and improving productivity. Ford claims its efforts have reduced employee injuries by 70 percent since the initiative began. In addition to using the body-tracking information to design workstations, Ford also uses wearable robotics, such as the EksoVest, designed by Richmond, CA-based Ekso Bionics, to reduce worker fatigue.
Worn on the upper body like a robotic backpack, it supports a person’s arms, shoulders, and back. It weighs less than 10 pounds and can be adjusted to provide 5 to 15 pounds of lift assistance per arm when fully engaged. The EksoVest uses mechanical suspension to aid employees with overhead tasks, such as working on the undercarriage of cars on the production line.
Image credit: Ford Motor Company
To further improve manufacturing processes, Ford uses virtual reality and 3D printing technologies. Before launching production on a new vehicle, Ford assesses more than 900 virtual assembly tasks to determine the feasibility and efficiency of the new assembly line processes. The process includes a 23-camera motion-capture system and a head-mounted VR display, which the employee wears to do simulated work on a virtual assembly line or at a virtual workstation. The VR simulations also allow manufacturing collaboration on a global level. If further evaluation is required, Ford uses 3D printed models—to validate hand clearance, for example—to ensure success.
The ability to assess workers’ movements allows Ford to adjust its manufacturing processes based on real-world data, which makes for a safer and more productive environment.
- Learn more about eksoWorks technology for construction, manufacturing, and industrial applications.