Digital ergonomics evaluator detects unhealthy movements

Press release – Hannover, 12/12/2019
How ergonomic is my workplace? Scientists from Hanover have developed a 3D camera system with which this question can be answered quickly and objectively. The digital ergonomics evaluator helps small companies in particular: In the future, they will be able to carry out ergonomics evaluations without great effort in order to protect their assembly staff from back and knee pain or similar problems.

A 3D camera and a laptop - that's all companies will need in the future to carry out ergonomics evaluations in assembly. The 3D camera observes an employee and records his movements: How often does he bend over? At what angle does he extend his arms?

The digital ergonomics evaluator uses software developed by scientists in the "WorkCam" research project to detect critical movements. The Institut für Integrierte Produktion Hannover (IPH) gGmbH and the Institut für Fabrikanlagen und Logistik (IFA) of Leibniz Universität Hannover worked closely together on this project - with the aim of enabling a simple, fast and, above all, objective ergonomic evaluation for assembly workstations.

So far, ergonomics evaluations have involved a great deal of effort. Large companies often employ specialists such as physiotherapists and ergonomists. They observe the employees, evaluate motion sequences and give tips on how workplaces can be designed more ergonomically. Automated motion analysis is possible with so-called motion-capture suits. Employees then have to wear full-body suits with markings so that their movements can be recorded and evaluated by cameras. However, these suits are more of a hindrance at work. In addition, both methods are complex and expensive: small companies cannot afford expensive equipment or hire physiotherapists. For this reason, the scientists at IPH and IFA have developed a much simpler alternative.

The "WorkCam" system records movements exclusively with the aid of a 3D camera. It observes the employees at their usual workplace without disturbing or hindering them in their work. To keep costs as low as possible, the scientists use a standard 3D camera. The camera recognizes all limbs and their positions in real time. In order to protect the identity of the individual employees, no faces are visible when the camera image is displayed on the screen. Only the body contour and a superimposed representation of the detected limbs are displayed.

The innovative feature of the "WorkCam" system is the ergonomics evaluation software with its underlying evaluation metrics, which the researchers have developed especially for the application of camera-based ergonomics evaluation. It is able to distinguish between critical and non-critical movements, to record the frequency of critical movements and to give recommendations for action on this basis. For example, if the employee frequently bends over your desk, it might be useful to adjust the height of the table. If the employee often has to kneel down, knee pads should be provided. And if he frequently reaches up - for example, to remove screws from a container - the company should consider rearranging the containers, for example as part of cardboard engineering. This would allow frequently used parts to be made available to the employee at a more accessible location.

With such recommendations for action, which the software automatically suggests, companies can significantly improve ergonomics at the workplace - even without the support of a physiotherapist. In addition, the WorkCam system is much faster and less expensive than previous methods. Smaller companies can also afford regular ergonomics evaluations and design their workplaces in such a way that their employees stay healthy for a long time. Particularly in times of a shortage of skilled workers, ergonomics at the workplace is becoming increasingly important: if companies reduce the risk of back pain, knee problems and the like, they can maintain the health of their employees, avoid absences and thereby save costs in the long term.

Photos in this press release

Ergonomics in assembly
A 3D camera observes the employee and detects the position of the joints and limbs in real time.

(Photo: IPH)

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Benjamin Küster

Manager production automation