Motion Capture and Virtual Reality can improve workplace health & design

New Industry 4.0 technologies have the potential to transform assembly system procedures for an ageing workforce

New solutions are emerging in the design of manufacturing workstations, especially since the advent of Industry 4.0 (I4.0) technologies. Specifically, the combined use of motion capture (MoCap) systems and Virtual Reality (VR) has been considered very promising from an ergonomic standpoint, with many researchers showing its potential.

Since 2003, Ford has been a leader in this area, reducing the injury rate by 70 percent through new ergonomics technology, lift-assist devices, workstation redesign and data-driven process changes. “We refer to our assembly line employees as ‘industrial athletes’, due to the physical nature of the job,” said Allison Stephens, technical leader for assembly ergonomics at Ford. “We have made data-driven decisions through ergonomics testing that has led to safer vehicle production processes and resulted in greater protection for our employees.” Virtual manufacturing experts at Ford use the following tools with each providing critical data used to evaluate the overall safety of the assembly process for employees, while maintaining high vehicle quality for customers:

– Full-body motion capture –  provides data on how an employee uses his or her body to move and complete tasks. Through more than 52 motion-capture markers placed on an employee’s arms, back, legs and torso, ergonomists can record more than 5,000 data points to evaluate muscle strength and weakness, joint strain and body imbalance.
– 3D printing – is used by an ergonomist to validate hand clearance in the vehicle assembly process in those instances in which virtual simulation yields unclear results. Employees with various hand sizes use the 3D-printed model to test how tight the space will be in vehicle assembly – which helps to drive better production decisions
– Immersive virtual reality – uses a 23-camera motion-capture system and head-mounted display to virtually immerse an employee in a future workstation. Then, the employee’s movements are evaluated to determine task feasibility and proficiency

It is widely known that the world population is ageing, with the most developed countries having the highest share of older people. This has great repercussions on the labour market, which is naturally experiencing an ageing workforce due to the necessity of increasing the retirement age. This represents a key issue in some industrial sectors, especially in manufacturing. In fact, in a sector such as manufacturing where repetitive movements are often required, the decline of the operators’ physical functions as the years go by (e.g., reduced musculoskeletal force, flexibility and motion capability) certainly represents a threat. .

How can MoCap and VR be applied beyond the car industry considering the current ageing workforce scenario – to support productivity and help reduce or prevent employee fatigue, strain and injury? Along with is it’s capability to gather and translate data it into mathematically usable signals that can guide engineering solutions prior to implementing tasks on the production floor?