Are People Working With or Against Machines?

Are People Working With or Against Machines?

Chad Toney, Executive Director - Advanced Manufacturing, GE Appliances

Chad Toney, Executive Director - Advanced Manufacturing, GE Appliances

So many times, when a major piece of equipment is being purchased, the focus is on the quality of the product and quoted cycle time. These are very important attributes for consideration. However, what is often forgotten is the ability of the people that are interacting with the machine. How many people are required to load and operate the equipment? Are people stuck at one station feeding the equipment? Are people able to feed materials in an ergonomic manner? These questions are very important to determine the safety, capability, productivity, and cost of the entire system.

The first step is to separate human work and machine work is by breaking down the elements of the work to be performed. Careful analysis of the interaction of the work will help determine problems, such as the human waiting for the machine to complete the cycle, excess walking, and being isolated from other operators, to name a few. Creating meaningful and productive work for employees allows them to maximize their potential, allows them to feel valued, and understand their contribution to the overall system. This process also helps define the issues and corrective actions that may be needed to improve the equipment.

"Having guiding principles, such as not putting an employee on an “island,” and creating standardized work is very important"

Having guiding principles, such as not putting an employee on an “island,” and creating standardized work is very important. These principles align the organization to ensure key philosophies are followed.  For instance, isolating an employee to an area away from other people should not happen.  If the throughput is increased or decreased because of demand, the employee is still stuck with the same work content and may not be fully utilized. Another principle is to define the employee standardized work before the equipment design is complete.  The basis for productive and efficient work is standardized work. It provides the baseline expectation and is the tool for problem-solving. If the person cannot perform the standardized work and they are trying to follow the standardized work, but cannot, then the focus is on the process, not the person.

Some other techniques to consider include providing a magazine of parts for the employee to load so they may be able to fill many different types of parts on a route. But if the operator has to manually load the machine, make sure to have an automatic part unload capability.The person and the equipment will not be efficient if the person has to unload each part manually. The goal is not to focus on just one aspect of utilization, such as the equipment only, but to design a system that has the right tradeoff between human and machine utilization. This can only be accomplished by separating the person’s work from the equipment’s work as much as possible.

Once the work content is defined, it is imperative to ensure the tasks meet ergonomic requirements. It is our responsibility as employers to ensure all work is safe. Assessments include weight, frequency, posture, and other related people factors. When issues are found, the equipment, part magazine, fixture, or even the part must be redesigned to ensure the work is ergonomic.

All of these factors must be explored before the equipment design is released.Unfortunately, many of these considerations are not addressed until the equipment is on the floor, which forces expensive adjustments.If the proper details are defined at the beginning, the system is much more likely to have a successful launch because the person is working with the equipment, not against it.

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