Ergonomic upgrades are becoming a vital part of many workplaces, and assembly workstations can be especially challenging. According to data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, ergonomic issues cost U.S. companies upwards of $54 billion annually, and they account for one-third of workplace absences.
Thermo Fisher Scientific, a leading manufacturer of laboratory technology, recently needed to implement ergonomic workstations to produce its new Heracell Vios incubators, which are designed to cultivate human and animal cells. Assembly of the 40-pound incubators is physically demanding, requiring numerous rotations to cover them with heater foils and insulation. Concerned about protecting employees’ health, the company installed ergonomic workstations equipped with modular positioning units from the Roemheld Group, which lift and rotate the incubators during the preassembly process.
“An ergonomic workstation like this is invaluable,” says Thermo Fisher equipment fitter Steffen Hillesheim. “It is good for the back, neck and shoulders and is a noticeable relief. The body feels it immediately.”
Heracell Vios incubators are a successor to the company’s top-selling Heracell model, which sold 75,000 units in 15 years. Designed for medical engineering and health research in universities and research laboratories, the incubators are assembled at Thermo Fisher’s plant in Langenselbold, Germany, a suburb of Frankfurt.
To prepare production of the new incubator, Felix Pergande, technical head of production at Thermo Fisher, and Stefan Kämmerer, production resources engineer, developed a prototype of the assembly workstation in 2013. They then used this to develop a new series production line, which resulted in a “start-up plant.”
“During this period of about half a year, we have had the overall responsibility for incubator production—from organization and material procurement through to quality assurance,” Pergande explains. “We industrialized production in this time. As soon as it was well-engineered, we handed it over to the responsible people in the incubator department.”
Thermo Fisher Scientific worked with Roemheld during development of the assembly workstations. Experts in assembly and handling technology, Roemheld is represented in North America by Carr Lane Roemheld Manufacturing Co. of Fenton, MO. Headquartered in Laubach, Germany, Roemheld has supplied assembly and handling equipment to Thermo Fisher since 2009.
“Carr Lane Roemheld’s modular units for assembly and handling consist of numerous modules that provide for optimum and ergonomic positioning of objects for manual assembly,” explains David Vilcek, manager of workholding and assembly for Carr Lane Roemheld. “Horizontal and vertical rotation, tilting, lifting, placement, and movement are the basic manipulations. The units can be combined into modular systems for loads ranging from 22 to 1,325 pounds, with manual or electric operation.”
A rotary module with media feed-ducts allows for the hydraulic, electrical or pneumatic operation of devices held by zero-point clamping systems without complex boring.
“Roemheld’s consultation quality is extremely high,” says Pergande. “They intensely and dedicatedly respond to our individual requirements. In addition, the company’s products are very reliable and can be configured according to our requirements. We do not have to buy anything ready-made.”
For the new manual assembly workstation, ergonomic challenges were of particular significance to Kämmerer. The earlier incubator series had been assembled on height-adjustable tables, but the 40-pound units had to be moved manually without any auxiliary equipment.
“For this reason, preassembly of the inner containers required a lot of handling and was physically more demanding,” says Kämmerer. Improvements were needed for the production of the new series.
The inside of the 28-by-18-inch casing is open to the front of the 42-gallon incubator and is manufactured in Thermo Fisher’s own sheet metal workshop. In preassembly, an employee covers all five sides with heater foils, requiring the container to be rotated several times. In addition, a sensor and a fixture require mounting. The entire process takes roughly 45 minutes. Next, the outside casing and insulation are assembled over it.
Thermo Fischer’s factory in Langenselbold has some 150 assembly employees, of whom eight are assigned to the manufacture of incubators in one or two shifts.
With the support of Manfred Parr, Roemheld assembly technology product manager, Kämmerer and Pergande designed a line of four similar assembly workstations arranged successively. Two of them are suitable for the assembly of larger incubator models.
All workstations comprise an electronic shop-floor lift module with a stroke of 8 inches. The load can be lifted and lowered by a pushbutton. A rotary module may be released manually in steps of 45 degrees; allowing the fitter to use two foot switches without walking around the container.
“The prototype of the assembly workstations had only one foot switch. To work more efficiently, the fitters had the idea of a second foot switch; this suggestion was rapidly implemented by Roemheld,” Kämmerer says.
After the design of the assembly workstations was completed, he ordered the components from Roemheld and assembled them. To preserve the surface finishes during work, he also developed a clamping device equipped with brushes on the bearing surfaces.
“The clear position fixation and the defined handling by means of the 45-degree indices noticeably reduced the risk of dents in the container,” Pergande says. Time savings and cost reduction were not high priorities in this design, though both are achieved. He emphasizes that the ergonomic workstation design contributes to protecting employee health and that “the absence of an employee costs money, because either we cannot produce or we have to assign a replacement.”
Under a lean manufacturing initiative, Thermo Fisher is in the process of improving additional single workstations and even entire lines. “This will also include the analysis of handling aspects,” says Pergande. “Since it is often inefficient to reduce wage cost by automation, we want to design our manual workstations to be as ergonomic and efficient as possible. The standard interface conception of Roemheld’s modular units is very helpful in this regard, because it allows for the flexible and uncomplicated planning of future workstations.”
For more information, call Carr Lane at 636-386-8022 or visit www.clrh.com/assembly.