Windsor Star: 3D video game technology, University of Windsor research to help Ford improve assembly line design

The technology behind the movie Avatar and your favourite video game characters is coming to Ford Motor Company assembly lines.

In the new year University of Windsor researchers expect to have Ford workers in Oakville wearing special gloves and gear with 36 sensors to record their movements and find ways to make assembly lines safer.

The two-year, $170,000 collaborative ergonomic research that will be done at Ford Motor Company plants in Oakville and Windsor uses 3D motion capture technology to collect information that could reduce injuries and lost time and change the way future assembly lines are designed.

“It was really space age,” said Allison Stephens, a Ford technical leader in assembly ergonomics in Dearborn, Mich.

She got a chance to try on the gear a month ago. “It was like you’re moving and you are making this avatar in the computer move,” she said Tuesday. “It was really cool.”

What takes Stephens a half day to set up in lab with several cameras could be done on the factory floor more accurately in 30 minutes. She could use it to compare differences between a tall and a short worker. It won’t be used to monitor every worker but to look for ways to reduce bending or straining for workers especially for lifting, pushing and pulling parts. 

“Our jobs are going to be really well designed. Our operators are going to benefit,” she said.

Joel Cort, a University of Windsor associate professor in kinesiology, and postdoctoral researcher Xiaoxu Ji, are working with the suits — which can cost $10,000-$60,000 US — and game-like simulation software. So far the biggest challenge is the sensors get magnetic interference from the metal in cars. 

Whether it’s video game technology or the ergonomic study, the most important thing is to get realistic motion so the researchers and company engineers can make accurate decisions on how to better design assembly lines, Cort said.

The research will help existing and future workers — who Cort calls industrial athletes — but also the company, car buyers and Canada. Cort said there is a direct link between ergonomics and quality and better designed work stations which leads to better built cars.

“We’re trying to keep automotive in Canada. If we have our workers being able to create higher quality that’s what we do for Canada.”

Cort said he’s impressed with Ford’s decision to invest in a safe working environment. The $170,000 funding, which is split between Ford and the Canadian government through the Mitacs Accelerate project, will fund a postdoctoral researcher and three masters students. It helps students prepare for the workplace and one student has already been hired by Ford, he said.

Byline: Sharon Hill