Workstations for Flexible Manufacturing Provide Ergonomic Benefits

Oct. 15, 2003
Marshaled in the battle against foreign competition, flexible manufacturing is leading U.S. manufacturers to get the most out of their investments in equipment and facilities and their employees, both at the management level and on the production floor.

Keeping the person on the assembly line as productive as possible through the shift is crucial. Helping to do just that is a new generation of mobile workstations that are enabling both flexible manufacturing and the creation of an ergonomic work environment.

As part of the flexible manufacturing revolution, take a look at the changing design of the plant building itself. More and more, the ideal manufacturing facility will be essentially a box, having as few walls as possible with open space for production and material handling systems.

Take the lid off this box and you find that the machines and structures once bolted to the floor are becoming things of the past. The adaptable, open approach of system design enables companies to continually re-configure their operation. Adaptability enables plants to quickly respond to changes in the market, alter their product mix and implement new ideas from their production team.

Flexibility also works into the production operation at the workstation level. The standard conveyor assembly line is on the way out with the introduction of module racking systems featuring modular fittings and heavy-wall steel tube. Rather than the traditional bolted or welded together assembly lines, workers can quickly re-arrange these systems as needs change.

Mobile Workstations

Ergonomic experts recognize that making slight adjustments in workstation set-up can lead to healthier employees, enabling them to experience less fatigue and be more productive throughout the shift. Flexible workstation design helps employees keep limber longer over the course of the shift with reduced long-term injuries.

Traditional standard workstations in manufacturing were bolted down and required workers to deal with a work surface that was in a fixed position. In addition, forklift runs of parts/products to and from the assembly area had to be precisely scheduled. Generally, time was wasted when a load arrived and the assembly worker was not ready for it.

As part of a flexible manufacturing system, mobile workstation carts eliminate both worker fatigue and forklifts from the factory floor. To satisfy the innumerable assembly situations, carts are coming out in a variety of designs to match the types of loads brought to the line and the function at that point of the process. These carts offer:

  • Different sizes and designs for containers.
  • Tilting capabilities to enable access deep into a container with minimal bending at the waist and back.
  • Rotating table tops for easy reach to parts at waist level.
  • Platform height adjustments.
  • Easy-to-reach shelving for small parts that fold out of the way when empty.
  • The ability to meet up with slat conveyors to receive loads at an easy access height.

In addition, these cart designs can accommodate different-sized steel, cardboard or dunnage containers so they can be deployed in other areas of the plant or handle a variety of loads.

These carts feature easy rolling wheels so they can travel right up to the work position and can be manually positioned, even if loaded up to 3,000 pounds. Through the course of the shift, the worker can easily nudge the cart to a position that is the most comfortable to prevent the muscle fatigue that can result from repetitive motion.

The carts travel to and from the warehouse or dock using small motorized carts or tuggers rather than 5-ton forklifts, which can be a safety hazard to employees on the factory floor. As for productivity, no coordination needs to be made between the assembly worker and the next cart coming up to the line. As the employee deals with the cart at hand, the next cart can be brought up at any time to the vicinity of the work area. When ready for the next cart, the worker moves the previous cart out the way to be picked up by the next tugger that happens to pass by the area. Work never has to slow down or stop to shuttle cart loads. In addition, these carts maneuver easily in cramped areas that would eat up time for even a skilled forklift driver.

Though some designs are becoming standard, customization plays a big role due to the variety of needs in a typical manufacturing plant. In many cases the cart manufacturer will consult with the people doing the actual assembly work to determine if the cart design achieves the goals of maximizing ergonomic design and productivity.

The concept of material handling has always been setting up the flow of products to maximize productivity. These workstation carts, along with other equipment innovations, mean that both production employees and the system can rapidly adapt to ever-changing demands.

Ed Brown is president of Topper Industrial, a supplier of material handling equipment in Sturtevant, Wis. Contact the company at (800) 529-0909 or via e-mail at [email protected].

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