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The Impact and Applicability of Ergonomics in a Foundry Environment

Author: Nick Knotts, Industrial Engineer, The Lawton Standard Co.

What is a company’s most important asset?

What is the most important resource to a manufacturing operation? Is it the machines? Is it the raw material? Does it depend on the type of manufacturing? Maybe it does depend on the business, but in my opinion, in almost every type of manufacturing, the most important resource is the people. This is especially true for an environment like the foundry, particularly in job-shop style no-bake foundries, which many of The Lawton Standard Co. foundries are. The diverse capabilities and product mixes of each site means that a large degree of adaptability is required to accommodate different types of parts and different types of metal (For further information on the capabilities of each of our sites, visit the Meet our Companies page on our website. Due to the amount of adaptability that is required to meet the demand at any given time, automation can become difficult to implement, maintain, and often sees poor utilization to the point at which it becomes cost-prohibitive in most situations.  The lack of the ability to fully or even partially automate certain aspects of a no-bake foundry means that people become an even more critical resource, as the business is reliant on them to operate the machinery and perform the manual tasks required to produce castings. 

What is the study of ergonomics?

On that front, if people are the most important resource, then how do we ensure that we keep them safe and healthy, maximize their performance capabilities, and keep them satisfied with the working environment? That is the premise upon which the field of ergonomics was founded. To put a firm definition to ergonomics, it is, quite simply, the study of how the human interacts with their environment (in most cases, that environment being their workplace). Ergonomics can be divided up into two categories, there is physical ergonomics, which is the study of how the human physically interacts with their environment. Then, there is cognitive ergonomics, which is the study of how the human brain responds to given inputs from the environment.  Ergonomics can be used somewhat interchangeably with the terms “Human Factors” or “Human Factors Engineering” or “Human Centered Engineering”, they all generally mean the same thing. 

How can we ensure that are our employees are successful?

In the field of ergonomics, there is a simple saying that pretty much encapsulates the need and usage of ergonomics, “Fit the task to the human, not the human to the task.” In my undergraduate education, I had a professor who constantly used this saying, and only now, after I have completed my education do I really see the depth and value in that statement.  In one sense, this can be taken quite literally, for example, say there is a task which requires an operator to be 6’ tall or more, in that case, you must ensure that the operator for that task is at least 6’ tall (i.e., fitting the human to the task). Now, consider the same task, but add a 1’ tall step stool, now the operator can be anyone 5’ tall or more, which means the task can be performed by almost anyone (i.e., fitting the task to the human). One can also view this statement in terms of workload and experience, different people have different work capacities and different levels of experience.  For example, if there is a super demanding job in terms of work capacity that requires an operator of 20+ years of experience to perform, there is a drastically smaller number of people who can perform that job as opposed to a job that may not have those requirements.

Having balance

Ergonomics in the workplace is a constant balancing equation between the demand of the task and the capability of the worker, whether it be in terms of cognitive ability, physical ability, time commitment, experience required, or other measures of worker capability.  The demand of the task and the capability of the worker can be represented visually by two circles, the circle in blue represents the capability of the worker, and the circle in red represents the demand of the task.

If the demand of the task is greater than the capability of the operator, then action must be taken to bring them to equilibrium, or to the point at which the worker capability is greater than the demand of the task. There are two ways to do this, one is to reduce the demand of the task by altering the task, and the other is to enhance the capability of the worker such that they can meet the demand for the task.

A shift in the labor market

For foundries, this is a constant battle that has been fought for years and is especially prevalent within the current labor market. More than ever, foundries are confronted with experienced personnel departing for other opportunities or departing for retirement. In the past, there may have been 5 operators on a line, 4 of them with 15+ years of experience, but now, most foundries would be considered lucky to have 5 operators on a line with 4 of them having 6+ months of experience. This shift in the labor market has led to overall worker capability being lower than in previous times, particularly on the cognitive ergonomics side. As a result of this, problems in relation due to operator error have risen to an all-time high, because most of the operators that we are working with today lack the capability and/or experience to perform the task to the same level as those 15+ year veterans that the industry no longer has as many of. 

Moving forward

So, what options does that leave foundries? It is unlikely that the labor situation will change within the foreseeable future, so there has to be some sort of adaptation to maintain the levels of quality and productivity required to operate a successful business. To do this, foundries either have to make the task less demanding, or they have to increase the capabilities of their workforce.  To make the work less demanding, foundries are reducing the complexity of tasks by attempting to eliminate or simplify cores/core assemblies, reduce the number of chills, reduce the amount of adherent sand to simplify cleaning, and other measures. For increasing the capabilities of their workforce, foundries are building more specific job instructions, visual aids, better onboarding, and training programs, and taking other steps in that direction.

Continued success

Foundries currently appear to be more focused on the cognitive front, as it addresses the most direct concern at this time given how drastically the world has changed in the last 4-5 years, especially in the labor market. Almost every foundry in the United States is working on cognitive ergonomics right now in some form or fashion to try and level the demand of the tasks with the capabilities of the workforce. In the foundry business, which is largely reliant on people, this is critical for our continued success and development of new talent within the industry.

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