Center to showcase advances in auto industry, workplace health

Joan Slattery Wall
Tags: workplace safety

A new center at Ohio State University will enable automotive industries and the college to work together to design processes to both protect worker health and optimize new vehicle production.

The Center for Occupational Health in Automotive Manufacturing is a unique interdisciplinary partnership between an assortment of university departments, automobile manufacturers and automobile suppliers to provide a real-world environment to study and perfect high-tech manufacturing technology along with state-of-the-art occupational health risk assessment techniques.

“A lot of long-time, established automakers are having problems with healthcare costs,” says Bill Marras, professor of industrial, welding and systems engineering and director of the new center. “Estimates show that $2,000 per vehicle goes toward worker benefits and healthcare costs. It’s killing automakers in terms of being able to compete.”

The center will feature several new production technologies, such as overhead car carriers.

“The carrier is like a big claw that will pick up each car and adjust the height and turn it 110 degrees in either direction from horizontal,” Marras says. “It can move a car from floor level to the height of a worker and turn it so the worker won’t have to do the bending and twisting. It keeps the worker in safer postures.”

Other key components of the center, which is supported by the university as well as automobile manufacturers and suppliers, include adjustable-height skillet systems, which orient the vehicle relative to the worker in an attempt to reduce musculoskeletal stress, and a human-assisted robot. These systems also will interface with numerous support functions, including tools, rail systems, balancers and carts. Some of these systems have been adopted overseas; however, they are expensive, and few have made their way into American auto manufacturing environments because little work has been done to optimize the implementation of these devices in a working environment.

“Close to $1 million in equipment for the center was donated from suppliers for the automotive industry,” Marras says.

Gene Buer, president of the crane builders group for Columbus McKinnon, one of the center’s supporting suppliers, says the benefit of the center is the science behind it. New York-based Columbus McKinnon supplies automotive manufacturers and other industries with material handling products, systems and services to efficiently and ergonomically move, lift, position or secure material.

“One of the very good things about this is we’re going to know ahead of time that the equipment we’re providing will most effectively address the issue that needs to be solved,” he says. “So for all of us, there is a likelihood of a higher customer satisfaction level with the solution provided. I think it also will greatly reduce the time to develop and implement that highly effective solution.”

“The truth is we’ve got an aging workforce in manufacturing,” Buer says. “Older workers are more susceptible to injuries. Their injuries tend to last longer, and they’re slower to come back to work, if and when they do. This facility sets a benchmark to measure what risks certain activities pose to the worker and how to mitigate those risks with proper intervention.”

This center is the only university-based, full-scale manufacturing operation in the world where automobile manufacturers as well as suppliers can test the effect of manufacturing systems on the health of workers. This approach will provide quantitative cost-benefit information to manufacturers so they can make production decisions based upon scientific evidence.

“It’s truly interdisciplinary. That’s one of the benefits of it,” Marras says, explaining that faculty and researchers from his Institute for Ergonomics as well as from mechanical engineering; industrial, welding and systems engineering; and Ohio State College of Medicine departments including occupational medicine, neurosurgery, orthopedic surgery and physical medicine will be involved.

The center is intended to be a showcase for occupational health research, and it will also serve as a platform for automobile manufacturing suppliers to highlight their new technologies and potential solutions for occupational health.

This article was written by the Ohio State University's College of Engineering for its News in Engineering magazine.

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