Handling equipment to meet the demographic challenge

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What effects will demographic change have on assembly and handling activities in automotive production? This question was discussed at the Demag Automotive Forum, to which Terex Material Handling had invited a panel of experts from the automotive industry.

In his keynote presentation, Prof. Dr.-Ing. Willibald Günthner, Chair for Materials Handling and Material Flow Logistics (fml) at Munich Technical University, first gave an overview of the leading trends and general conditions for future industrial production. These include demographic developments: the current age pyramid will be almost completely reversed by 2030. In this period, there will be a sharp increase in the share of employees who are older than 55. These workers will have more experience, but they will also be less able to cope with physical effort. At the same time, industry will increasingly face a shortfall in management trainees, which will force companies to use their ageing staff to deal with the work at hand.

Human/machine interface as the deciding factor
Many automotive manufacturers have already identified these trends and implemented comprehensive packages of preventive measures that are designed to improve workplace ergonomics and to reduce the physical burden for the workers. According to Prof. Günthner, whose institute works intensively on such measures, a smart division of tasks is required: “Humans can contribute their cognitive abilities and unbeatable versatility, whereas the hoist units or robots provide the power to do the work. The aim is to find the optimum blend. In this context, the human/machine interface plays a decisive role. If an operator has the feeling that he is moving the handling equipment, and not the load, he will not use the equipment. The same applies when he subjectively feels that there is a delay when he moves the load.”

Demag E-Balancer: sharing the work between the human and the machine
Following the keynote presentation, Jörg Birkenstock, Components Product Manager at Terex Material Handling, presented handling equipment that reduces the workload for assembly workers in terms of prevention – not only in automotive production. The “D-BE E-Balancer” enables loads to be handled conveniently and safely and acts like an extension to the operator’s arm.

As soon as the operator grasps the handle of the E-Balancer unit, the load can be lifted and positioned with ease. This is even possible by moving the load by hand without using the handle. An integrated weighing device measures the actual load and holds it in balance. Jörg Birkenstock explained: “The first time that you try the unit out is quite astonishing; by the second and third time, you can already operate the E-Balancer intuitively and you really gain the impression that the load weighs nothing.” At the same time, the unit incorporates all of the safety functions to be found on board a state-of-the-art hoist unit.

Smooth operation redefined
With the aim of ensuring that the user should not even notice the hoist unit while it is in use, the Demag design engineers have also developed the latest generation of the KBK Aluline system. Tim Rother, Product Manager at Terex Material Handling, gave a presentation on the system launched some 50 years after the introduction of the KBK crane construction kit and ten years after the first generation of KBK Aluline. The primary goal was to relieve the workload of operators in production, assembly and shipping – particularly also in view of demographic change.

The new KBK Aluline features extremely smooth operating characteristics and, therefore, corresponds to the principle formulated by Prof. Günthner that the operator should ideally not notice the hoist unit as such – and should concentrate fully on guiding the load. Tim Rother explained: “In addition, we have also simplified assembly, reduced the weight of the system and considerably improved the load-capacity-to-deadweight ratio.”

Relieving the load for workers
These two new products – the Demag E-Balancer and the new Demag KBK Aluline system – provide factory and workplace planners, not only in the automotive sector, with new lifting and handling systems that relieve the load on workers in the true sense of the word.

One question from the audience, however, remained to be answered. It is hardly surprising that it was raised by a representative of the highly cost-aware automotive industry: how do you calculate the return on investment for measures that relieve the load for workers? Prof. Günthner already had the answer: “At our institute, we have conducted a number of investigations into optimising ergonomics and I have also consulted ergonomists regarding this question. As yet, there are no studies or statistics that precisely quantify this relationship. Whereas it is possible to calculate the costs for lost time incidents and time taken off due to sickness or injury, it is not possible to put a figure on the benefits of individual measures.” However, both the panel of experts and the audience agreed that measures of this kind offer long-term benefits and cost savings.

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