Xiaoxu Ji assembles a car, Joel Cort monitors his movementsKinesiology professor Joel Cort (right) is part of team of ergonomics researchers working to improve digital simulation tools to promote safety and efficiency in automotive assembly plants. Here, postdoctoral fellow Xiaoxu Ji straps on motion-capture sensors to record his movements.

Ergonomics project to speed simulations of auto plant operations

Ergonomics and human biomechanics researchers from the Faculty of Human Kinetics are poised to help improve workplace safety and efficiency, thanks to a new three-year Mitacs grant with additional industry funding from United States Council for Automotive Research members: Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis.

Professor Joel Cort and Masters of Kinesiology students Joe Kagumba and Jarrod Smith will be working to improve digital workstation simulation tools used in manufacturing settings. The project will focus on increasing the accuracy of digital representation of human motion and decreasing the time required to complete these simulations.

Collecting the motions of automotive assembly operators, or “industrial athletes,” as Dr. Cort calls them, will allow the researchers to develop a motion library that represents how the actual automotive assembly tasks are done. The library will also be used to develop prediction algorithms to speed up full workstation simulations in future.

These simulations advance the overarching goal of the Occupational Simulation and Ergonomics Laboratory to reduce the risk of work-related musculoskeletal disorders and improve the overall health and well-being of automotive assembly operators.

Cort noted that there are many factors in play that can contribute to these disorders, from repetitive motion to fatigue factors, over the course of a shift.

“By building a more complete library of motions for simulators, we are hoping not only to build more accurate simulations and functional workspaces, but also significantly reduce the time needed for engineers to accurately plan an assembly line,” he said.

Assembly plants can have more that 500 workstations, each representing a physical task which is repeated many times over the course of an hour. Simulations help engineers design each space to minimize risks of injury or fatigue and promote the best possible work environment. Workstations need to work for people of all sizes and abilities and take into consideration the real-world execution of tasks.

Kagumba, who will be helping with data collection and analysis for the project, became interested in the physical mechanics of movement through his passions for physics and sport.

“We want to investigate how a person’s height effects the variability of data between current digital modelling versus the reality of the plant floor,” he said. “By measuring these variances, we hope to improve the overall accuracy of current simulation technology.”

Mitacs Accelerate Grants support collaborative efforts between academic institutions and industry partners that can benefit from their expertise. Projects like this one provide real-world experience to such students as Smith, who found enthusiasm for the field of ergonomics during his undergraduate research experiences.

“Having worked as a TPT (temporary part-time) at Chrysler during the summers, I have seen first-hand how ergonomic factors can affect line workers,” he said.

Smith is grateful for the opportunity to get professional experience while helping to ensure a safe workplace for those on the line: “Our primary goal for this project is to help reduce injury in the workplace.”

Although ergonomics and human factors were not on the radar for Kagumba or Smith when they started their educational journeys, both have found it to be an engaging career path that has a lasting impact on quality of life.

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