Virtual Reality and Production Ergonomics

The big automobile manufacturers have been using Augmented and Virtual Reality to both design cars and sell them in dealerships; but there is a step in between design and sales where AR/VR can be employed and that is production. I’m not talking about auto workers wearing AR glasses to view assembly instructions on top of vehicles as they come down the line; but rather using VR to simulate the assembly process itself and ensure the safety and comfort of those who carry it out.

The ergonomics of each step of putting a machine together – how a worker must move throughout the assembly process – is not something we often think about, yet poor production ergonomics are a source of inefficiency and can have a high physical cost for employees (+ associated financial costs for the company.) It is difficult to assess the ergonomics of a process like automobile assembly or the building of other large-scale manufacturing products by examining a schematic or onscreen model. And once the vehicle or machine hits production, it becomes too expensive to make major changes that don’t affect product performance or pose a serious threat to the end user.

Virtual Reality can help optimize production by detecting problems that might arise during assembly. In a virtual world, you can test out and analyze different scenarios and methods as they would occur in the real working environment without staging physical mock-ups or putting actual workers at risk. You could assess the dimensions and kinematics/operation of tools and equipment in relation to the human worker; adjusting these to the biomechanics and physical attributes of the assembly worker, making sure all necessary tools are within reach, and that their use will not require unsafe leaning, twisting, reaching or bending. You could even recreate the entire manufacturing plant to factor in (and ideally position) elements that might impact the process you’re designing, including other production cells, moving vehicles, and even lighting and air conditioning.

Essentially, VR enables manufacturing experts to “rehearse” assembly from the human worker’s perspective, and real enterprises are seeing benefits like increased efficiency and fewer injuries. Read on to learn how Ford and John Deere are using Virtual Reality and motion detection technology to make life easier and safer for assembly line workers:

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Ford

In 2015, Ford reported that it was outfitting employees with Virtual Reality headsets and motion capture body suits to refine the design of future production lines. Ford researchers simulated the assembly process for upcoming vehicle models, running through the steps with a real person and 3D-printed (partial) mockups in a virtual workstation and using the data to spot production challenges, assess physical risks, and design ergonomic tooling years in advance of actual assembly.

Motion capture revealed how an employee would need to move to complete an assembly task; what degree of muscle strength, joint strain and body imbalance would be involved. A head-mounted display was used to study the feasibility of tasks for workers on the line and 3D printed models to look more closely at things like maneuvering and using tools in tight spaces.

The results influenced production decisions and affected vehicle design components and parts, helping to reduce the number of injuries by as much as 70%. 

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John Deere

The machinery manufacturer probably best known for its tractors uses Virtual Reality in the design process to understand and optimize both how future operators will use its machines and how employees will assemble them.

Engineers tasked with determining assembly feasibility of new machines conduct VR reviews during product development. In these reviews, an operator wearing a VR headset and using motion-tracked tools is fully immersed in a virtual work environment. The evaluators watch on, seeing the user’s view on a screen, to assess things like whether the worker has enough visibility; whether her body is interfering with the machine; whether she has to assume an awkward posture or reach for a tool during the assembly; whether the tool fits where it has to go (in a particular area or part of the machine;) etc.

In this way, high-risk processes are identified and machine designs tweaked before they can cause real injury in the factory and delay manufacturing.

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Manufacturing design engineers obviously think about a product’s look, and we know they focus on user experience; but the way new products are designed also affects how they are built. Designers must therefore take into consideration the actual assemblers and any potential safety pitfalls or impracticalities they might encounter in putting a product together. Virtual Reality presents a powerful tool for simulating what it takes to build a machine and refining a design to make assembly itself more ergonomic and streamlined, thereby building safety and a layer of efficiency right into the production line.

 

The 5th Annual Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit 2018, the leading event for enterprise wearables, will take place October 9-10, 2018 at The Fairmont in Austin, TX. EWTS is where enterprises go to innovate with the latest in wearable tech, including heads-up displays, AR/VR/MR, body- and wrist-worn devices, and even exoskeletons. For details, early confirmed speakers and preliminary agenda, please stay tuned to the conference website.

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Augmented World Expo (AWE,) the world’s largest conference and expo dedicated to Augmented and Virtual Reality, is taking place May 30-June 1, 2018 in Santa Clara, CA. Now in its 9th year, AWE USA is the destination for CXOs, designers, developers, creative agencies, futurists, analysts, investors and top press to learn, inspire, partner and experience first-hand the most exciting industry of our times.

 

photo credit: justraveling.com Virtual Reality at SXSW 2017 via photopin (license)