Although automation in factories is commonplace, human input is still crucial and remains at the heart of many operations, including those that are value-added and repetitive but require a high level of precision. In some cases, a worker lifts his arm 4,600 times a day, almost a million times a year to perform some tasks.
Wearable robotic technologies – exoskeletons – support workers in their jobs, and adoption is growing. In 2018 more than 7,000 units were sold into the manufacturing industry (ABI Research data), but the potential market need could be 60,000 units for all types of exoskeleton, with an estimated growth rate expected of more than 50% from 2019 to 2024.
The MATE passive technology exoskeleton from Comau (Turin, Italy) , which does not require batteries or motors, provides postural support that follows the movements of the arms without resistance or misalignment. This generates a 30% reduction in stress on the main shoulder muscles. Overall, the MATE improves workplace comfort, reduced muscle fatigue and, bottom line, improved quality of work.
Comau designed its exoskeleton in collaboration with workers in order to meet their needs, and support them in many sectors, including construction, domestic appliances, agriculture, services and automotive.
Preserving Operators’ Health During Assembly Operations at IVECO
Comau’s MATE exoskeleton was chosen by IVECO to reduce the fatigue on the upper limbs suffered by the operators engaged in the heaviest activities inside the various production departments of the company’s Brescia, Italy, plant.
IVECO’s Eurocargo line is produced there, and it’s a very complex system – everything starts in the bodywork department, where various stamped panels are welded together to build the cabin of the vehicle. Once assembled, it enters the painting area, a fully automated line where six robots apply enamel to the body after a cataphoresis painting process. Later, the cabin is moved to the upholstering line, where the seats and dashboard are assembled, together with all the other necessary parts. In the meantime, the chassis is being built in another department, after which it will be paired with the cabin. The frame enters another assembly line where the engine, gearbox, power pack, suspension system and mechanical components are mounted. The cabin and chassis complete their cycles at the same time, so that they can be paired, and the Eurocargo vehicle can start its journey into the world.
“The production of Eurocargo makes us proud, because its huge range of configurations allows us to offer our customers about 13,000 different versions, with a projected repeatability index of about 2.85 for 2019,” explains Marco Colonna, plant manager. “In other words, it’s very rare that two identical vehicles are delivered at the same time.
“Obviously, keeping high production efficiency with such significant product variability is not simple, and requires a structured logistic organization because many materials are delivered to the various stations on a just-in-time basis and according to the production cycle. Consequently, the flow of information must be managed correctly as well, in order to ensure that everyone knows what to do at any given time and has all the necessary tools available for their tasks. This applies to all the company levels.”
IVECO achieved such accurate and efficient organization by using the World Class Manufacturing (WCM) philosophy, a strategy that incorporates the methodologies of Total Productive Maintenance (TPM), Lean Manufacturing and Total Quality Management.
“WCM is a production approach that involves the company at every level and function, from production to safety, logistics and maintenance activities,” says Paolo Gozzoli, WCM plant support. “The goal is to achieve efficiency in every department in an integrated way by means of tests and designed tools to manage specific inefficiencies. All our workforce must be involved and made aware that everyone’s contribution is essential to the improvement of our business efficiency.”
The Human Equation
As part of the WCM application, some employees were redeployed to the interior construction of minibuses with Daily engines. It’s an almost artisanal production that IVECO is standardizing as much as possible and, like any other department, it is subject to constant analysis and research aimed at the continuous improvement of processes.
IVECO closely examined the working conditions of its operators, since the department features many activities that must be carried out while personnel are lifting their arms – and the average IVECO employee is about 49 years old.
“For this reason,” says Gozzoli, “in the search for solutions that could make the work on minibuses the least burdensome possible, we started a collaboration with the Ideal Production System (IPS) division, whose task is to search for new ideas and tools in an Industry 4.0 perspective to guarantee the best operating conditions at every time for the people and the plant as a whole.”
IVECO’s research was completed in 2018 during the Automatica fair in Munich, where they discovered Comau’s MATE exoskeleton and the tasks it is capable of performing.
“Comau’s MATE immediately stood out as the ideal solution for our needs,” says Gozzoli. “First of all, we required a tool which could help our operators in activities involving the upper limbs without reducing their mobility due to its structure or size. Another crucial feature for us was our conviction that a wearable device should be easy to wear and lightweight, also considering summer heat as a detrimental factor in terms of comfort. Comau’s exoskeleton meets all these requirements.”
IVECO decided to provide MATE to some of its operators involved in the construction of minibuses. They used the exoskeleton for a few hours and they could immediately notice a clear improvement in their working conditions. In one station, the operator is assisted by MATE in the placement of reinforcements and accessories in the upper part of the minibus. For these tasks, the operators have to keep their arms raised overhead, resulting in trapezius-deltoid muscle fatigue, which was immediately reduced with the introduction of the exoskeleton.
This is a remarkable benefit for the employees, who can perform their jobs in a more comfortable situation. The improvement is witnessed everyday by the operators who count on the support of MATE, including. He explained,
“I have used the MATE exoskeleton for a few months now, and I must say that I immediately found relief, especially for my shoulders,” says Antonio Maccarinelli, the team leader of Section 1 of the minibus line. “When mounting the reinforcements in the upper part of the vehicle, I have to keep my arms raised for a long time, often while I’m holding the tools I need to mount the various components. Even though they are all light objects, at the end of my shift I always noticed that this apparently minimal effort took its toll on my body.
“Now, my shoulders are in an excellent condition,” he adds. “Moreover … the device is really easy to wear. It’s like carrying a backpack, and just needs a few initial settings to be immediately operational. Adjusting the shoulder straps is also quick and easy, which is really important, because I share MATE with other operators. Each of us has a slightly different build, but we can easily adapt it and feel comfortable.”
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