Manufacturing Improvements Begin with the Operator

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Equipment and Processing Report

Equipment and Processing Report, Equipment and Processing Report-03-19-2008, Volume 0, Issue 0

When seeking to increase productivity, companies must consider worker–machine and worker–materials interactions. These factors are easy to overlook, but they affect workers' performance and health and a company's bottom line.

When seeking to increase productivity, companies must consider worker–machine and worker–materials interactions. These factors are easy to overlook, but they affect workers’ performance and health and a company’s bottom line.

Laboratory and manufacturing equipment is often uncomfortable to use or inadequately designed. Work schedules and operating procedures sometimes fail to consider workers’ physical needs and limitations. Companies that apply ergonomics principles to address these issues see dramatic results in terms of reduced absenteeism, fewer injuries, and improved productivity.

Risk factors for primary work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs) include awkward postures, fatiguing forces, vibration, contact stress, ill-fitting gloves, and cold temperatures. Applying ergonomics principles reduces these factors because equipment and workspaces are designed according to workers’ abilities and physical limitations.

Lean manufacturing and ergonomics
Lean manufacturing minimizes waste in the system; ergonomics minimizes risk. The optimal blending of both lean and ergonomic principles enables employees to continuously spot and eliminate waste while addressing the potential for WMSDs.

Engineers in the pharmaceutical industry are increasingly considering human factors early in their design process. Equipment designers are taking an active, rather than reactive, approach to ergonomics. Designers of active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) manufacturing processes seek to identify unnecessary motions and excessive material transportation.

Reduce wasteful motions. Motions such as retrieving distant supplies and components are excessive and increase the time required to perform tasks. Wasteful movements also contribute to ergonomic risk. The farther an employee must go, the greater the ergonomic risks, and the greater the cycle times.

A constant challenge in API manufacturing is material handling, i.e., adding solid materials and retrieving solid intermediates and finished products. Engineering controls improve this work flow by changing the physical features of the workplace. Changes may include reducing object weights, changing work-surface heights, and purchasing lifting aids. With engineering modifications, a workstation can suit human dimensions and capabilities.

Typical wasteful motions include:


  • Charging and discharging APIs

  • Assembling and disassembling installations

  • Bending and reaching to retrieve ingredients and equipment.

To prevent motion waste and promote ergonomically correct postures:

  • Minimize the distances required to retrieve materials and tools
  • Store items at reachable heights

  • Position workstation surfaces to promote neutral postures.

Reduce excessive material transportation. In a typical multistory API plant, transportation waste such as repeated handling of products (as may occur during charging into vessels) creates ergonomic risk as well. Large components and containers are difficult for operators to handle and move. When operators use awkward postures frequently, they increase ergonomic risk. Transportation should thus be minimized.

Examples of material-transportation waste include:

  • Repeated product and equipment handling

  • Off-line analytical systems that increase transportation between the process and product.

To minimize transportation waste:

  • Minimize material handling; try to eliminate intermediate isolation, storage, and returns to the plant.

  • Use hard-piped liquids and gases when possible and limit solids handling of raw materials.

  • Use online analytical systems to reduce the transportation distances between process and product.

Overall, ergonomic principles open up new dimensions in continuous improvement. More pharmaceutical manufacturers are recognizing the importance of integrating ergonomic solutions into their business processes. When companies take up the challenge of transforming their environment, they achieve the manufacturing-performance improvements that the market demands.

Josh Kerst is a vice-president and ergonomics consultant for Humantech, an ergonomics consulting firm.