Dearborn Michigan - Imagine lifting a bag of flour or a watermelon over your head, 4600 times a day. That’s the equivalent of what some car-company workers have to do.
Whenever the sequence involves requires fitting parts and tightening bolts under the car, as in suspension or exhaust system mountings, the assembly line rises up to just above head height at that point so the workers can see what they’re doing. It’s a lot quicker and easier than grovelling under the car at floor level, but it does mean that the workers have to lift their arms, and whatever tools they’re using for the job, over their heads, thousands of times a day.
It’s not surprising that amongst this group of workers, repetitive stress injuries and just plain fatigue are common.
So Ford has partnered with Ekso Bionics, a maker of wearable robotics that help people rethink their physical limitations, to create a new wearable technology called the EksoVest that makes overhead assembly jobs a lot easier by lifting and supporting workers' arms while they reach up with a power tool to bolt on components from underneath the car.
“Building cars is a tough job,” said Ford vice-president for manufacturing Bruce Hettle. “We’re trying to help our workers do their jobs with the least possible wear and tear on their bodies.”
The EksoVest can be adjusted to fit people from 1.58 metres to 1.92 metres tall and provides lift assistance from 2kg to 7kg per arm. Ford has been running a pilot program at plants in Wayne and Flat Rock, Michigan for the past year, using the feedback from operators on the line to help refine the technology before rolling it out worldwide.
The workers say they like it because it’s light and comfortable, and doesn’t impede natural arm movement - just makes it less of an effort. One of the first to try it, Flat Rock line operator Nick Gotts, said: “Any job that’s overhead, I wouldn’t do without it.”
EksoVests are now in use at all of Ford’s North American plants, as well as in plants in Asia, Europe and South America. Check out the video to see how they work: