Our Windsor: UWindsor researchers studying 3-D technology to improve working conditions at Ford

Manufacturers have been using motion capture technology for more than a decade to improve workplace safety, but researchers at the University of Windsor are working on a smoother system to produce more accurate data.

The research will be put in use at Ford Motor Company’s Oakville assembly and Windsor engine plants. The project is funded through a $170,000 grant which is split between Ford and Mitacs Canada’s Accelerate program, which is supported by the provincial and federal governments.

Ergonomics professor Joel Cort and postdoctoral fellow Xiaoxu Ji are using 3-D motion capture technology similar to that employed by the video game and film industry. The project involves studying these captured motions to determine ways of reducing the risk of workplace injuries.

A person will put on a suit hooked up to a computer which captures a digital representation of that person and all the motions they make.

He said until now, this type of technology has had to rely on using cameras to film the motions, but now the data can be transferred directly to a computer program. This makes it more “feasible” to use in a manufacturing setting, he said, because now several cameras don’t need to be installed.

“There are many people and if we bring a camera-based system in, we would miss a lot of the movements that we need to capture of that worker,” said Cort. “Even just simply that person getting into the vehicle to put a part in, we would have to have cameras inside the car.”

However, there are still some challenges with the technology he’s using now. These “inertial-based sensors,” as they are called, have traditionally been used in sterile environments because they are highly affected by metal.

There have been some advances in the technology to limit those errors and one part of Cort’s research is to understand how it is still affected by metal.

Cort said he’s studying motions which will be used in manufacturing plants three to four years from now.

“What we’re hoping to do is collect this data so we have a really nice data set that can be used by the people that are designing these work stations well in advance to have a better, more accurate representation of how a person would put that part on in the future,” he said.

Once Cort and his team finish their analysis, select Ford workers will wear the suits during their everyday work. Adjustments in the workplace could be as simple as making it so a worker can bend down to pick up a part at half the distance they do currently, he said.

Mitacs’ involvement pays for interns to be part of the project. Alejandro Adem, CEO and scientific director of the not-for-profit organization, said for a student or recent graduate to work with a company like Ford, they will be given a chance to apply what they have learned to something that has a “commercial impact.

“They will learn first hand what it is like to work in the industry and this will give them an opportunity then to pursue a career in industry in the private sector instead of just looking for a job as an academic,” he said. “It will also help retain them in Canada instead of moving somewhere else.”

Adem said this project was seen as important for this region of the country and could help a “strategic sector” for Ontario and Canada.

“I just think it’s quite amazing that that kind of research, which is similar to video games, can be used to really improve the working conditions and to read the research that improves the overall performance of the plant,” he said.

Cort said the safer work conditions which could result from the research may also spinoff into a better quality product by Ford and help with the company’s bottom line due to less worker compensation payments.


Tom Morrison