Workers are aging. The number older than 45 has doubled since 1950, and the number of people 75 and older in the labor force is expected to grow by more than 96% by 2030. Sometimes because they want to, other times because they have to, people are working longer.
The effects of aging include loss of muscle mass, loss of upper body strength, and lower ability to move and handle loads. Also, about a third of the U.S. population is obese. With that comes greater potential for high blood pressure and arthritis. All this becomes a problem when a fabricator must deal with a significant amount of manual material handling.
Poor workplace ergonomics begins to drain productivity and possibly hurt worker retention. In such a hypercompetitive labor market, someone who consistently leaves a shift with a sore back might start looking for other opportunities soon. So what can a fabricator do to improve ergonomics? The answer isn’t as straightforward as you might think.
How Much Can You Automate—Really?
Popular perception holds that robotics and automation absolutely dominate modern manufacturing in North America. Anything that can’t be automated is sent overseas to take advantage of cheap labor. It sounds nice, but it’s a vast oversimplification. Certain processes are indeed automated, and software automation has streamlined technical processes like machine programming and even quoting. Even so, high product mixes as well as uneven demand limit automation’s use.
Even the most automated scenarios in sheet metal require at least some manual intervention. Massive, sophisticated machinery handles sheet metal parts as they move from cutting to bending and sometimes even welding. But at some point, people need to lift a part, an assembly, or a box, then place it somewhere. They could stage parts on a pallet for a fork truck or hand truck, perhaps place boxes on a conveyor or an automated mobile vehicle. The physical acts of lifting and moving parts and products haven’t left even the most roboticized factory floor.
In fact, some of the most difficult twisting, bending, and reaching occurs in areas of the sheet metal shop with limited automation options, especially in downstream manufacturing steps like assembly, packaging, and shipping. In operations upstream, a highly automated fab shop might have a tower to handle the material through cutting, perhaps even robots or mechanized systems to dispose of the skeleton and sort parts on pallets.
Move downstream, and the amount of reaching and bending increases. Material handlers or helpers lift blanks from pallets onto a table near the press brake. Brake operators then use (if they’re lucky) sheet lifters or other ergonomic aids to steady the workpiece through the bending cycle, then stack formed parts on another pallet.
The fork truck takes that pallet downstream, where the bending and reaching shifts into high gear. Someone needs to bend down and reach up to hang parts on the powder coat line. Someone needs to bend and reach to move coated parts to assembly. The packaging department might have automated shrink wrapping, but someone needs to stack those finished parts on the pallet.