The scientific knowledge and methods used in ergonomics and human factors provides the ability to understand users, consumers and systems in order to design new manufacturing technology, develop innovative and marketable products and services, improve operational efficiency, manage the ageing workforce and improve health and safety.
Ergonomics and human factors has always been important to manufacturing, particularly from the industrial revolution when people and machinery were forced together in large-scale mass-production factory environments and sociotechnical problems began to emerge as a result. Although manufacturing engineers and managers have traditionally focused on developing technical systems to replace people, there is now an increasing recognition that even in highly advanced and automated production processes people are still essential for various roles and therefore we must develop an equivalent understanding of human/social systems.
Today, ergonomics and human factors has a significant part to play in developing our grasp of how best to design products and processes to optimise both work performance and worker health and safety. This is particularly true with the rapid advances of manufacturing technologies which mean people will be expected to interact more and more with sophisticated new hardware and software and cope with job role changes.
In manufacturing, ergonomics and human factors plays an important role in:
Developing innovative products
In the competitive market place, the imperative is to commercialise scientific and technological innovation into a marketable product and service combination. For example, researchers and designers are currently developing products to be aware of the user, using sensors to detect information from the body. These so-called intelligent products require new to ways to interact with users.
Discovering usable ways for humans to interact with these new devices is an important application of human factors and ergonomics. Both qualitative and quantitative data is used to observe and understand human behaviour for defining end user requirement, interacting with new prototypes and developing new product concepts.
Developing new manufacturing technology
With the rapid advances in manufacturing technology (e.g. cloud manufacturing, nanomanufacturing and additive manufacturing or 3D printing), supply change management, regulations and industry standards, people will be expected to interact more with sophisticated new hardware and software and cope with changes in job role knowledge and skills.
Human Factors and Ergonomics Specialists can identify the specific tasks performed using new hardware and software and can perform a training needs analysis for specific job roles. The correct training methods, knowledge and skills can be developed and assessed.
Using the cloud to support mass customisation to users’ personal needs requires affective requirements capture. Human Factors and Ergonomics Specialists are well placed to capture and express end user needs in a formalised way. In the future, there is likely to be more partnership development between companies where people select and configure new supply chains and create new social networks. It will be important to develop formalised methods for capturing and expressing skill, reliability and knowledge, as well as technical capability. This will allow effective decision support for supply chain management. Human decision-making is an important domain in the application of human factors and ergonomics.
A powerful technique for solving manufacturing challenges is Participatory Ergonomics. The framework and methods used require end user involvement in both the design and analysis stages. Participatory Ergonomics has become increasingly used across a wide range of sectors in manufacturing to solve operational and efficiency problems, reduce sickness absence, improve employee engagement, productivity and reduce injuries.
Managing an ageing workforce
Many parts of the world, especially in developed countries, are observing an increase in the proportion of the population with a demographic over age 50. For example, in the UK, the proportion of the workforce in the manufacturing industry over 50 years of age is 30%.
While older workers have more experience and may have acquired more tacit knowledge in their work roles, it is also the case that some workers may experience mental and physiological restrictions in relation to adaptability. In order to support older workers remaining active in the workforce, it is important to match the physical and mental work demands of the job to the physical and mental capacity of each employee. Ergonomists and Human Factors Specialists have the skills and tools to assess all aspects of the working environment, from equipment to management structure, in order to understand how best to accommodate and adapt to the needs of older workers.
Improving health and safety
The causes of injury and ill-health are similar across the manufacturing sectors.
Using the food and drink sector for example, machinery and plant causes:
• Over 30% of fatal injuries
• Over 10% of major injuries (e.g. requiring hospitalisation)
• Over 7% of all injuries (i.e. major injuries and over-3-day absence injuries)
• Almost 500 injuries per year reportable to Health and Safety Executive.
Other causes of injury include:
• Manual handling and lifting – especially heavy loads or sharp edges
• Slips – mostly due to wet or contaminated floors
• Being struck by objects – mostly falling packages, sometimes hand tools
• Striking against fixed or moveable objects, e.g. plant or stationary vehicles
• Exposure to harmful substances – burns and scalds from carrying open containers of hot product, manual dispensing of caustic cleaners etc.
• Work-related upper limb disorders (WRULDs), e.g. from repetitive packing work
• Noise induced hearing loss from noisy machinery, e.g. hopper feeds, mould shakers, packaging machinery
Human Factors and Ergonomics Specialists can provide an assessment of the causes of personal injury and determine whether the employer provided the required duty of care.
The issues covered include:
• Work history, demographics and other relevant personal factors
• Evidence of selection procedures and suitability for the tasks performed
• Evidence of instruction and training and warning of the potential hazards
• Extent of supervision
• Provision of health surveillance
• Evidence of the consultation process and complaints procedure and resulting actions including assessments
• Evidence of possible avoidance precautions
• Evidence that risks assessments had been appropriately conducted and the risks reassessed after any interventions
• Evidence of the use of an ergonomics approach to reduce risks including consideration of the task, equipment, job rotation, rest breaks, environmental factors, work organisation, job design and individual differences.
The collection of the above information can also be used at a starting point to design new work processes where the risks are reasonable practicable to avoid.