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Exoskeleton lightens the load at Italian factory

Technology is used to reduce fatigue in the upper limbs of operators involved in the heaviest lifting activities

Posted on 13 Aug 2020 and read 1425 times
Exoskeleton lightens the load at Italian factoryTurnin-based IVECO SpA, an Italian industrial vehicle manufacturing company, designs and builds commercial vehicles, quarry/construction site vehicles, city and intercity buses and special vehicles for applications including firefighting, off-road missions, the military and civil defence.

The company recently introduced Comau’s MATE exoskeleton on one of its production lines at is Brescia plant to improve the health and comfort of employees and this immediatley led to an improvement in the quality of their work.

Marco Colonna, IVECO Brescia plant manager, said: “The Brescia factory which now hosts IVECO has a very long history. It was opened by Officine Meccaniche (OM) in the early 1900s, a car and truck manufacturing company which became famous after a car built at the plant won the first Mille Miglia race in 1927. After that, OM focused on the production of industrial vehicles and became part of what was then the Fiat Group.”

“In 1975, the company joined forces with four international automobile brands — Fiat Veicoli Industriali and Lancia Veicoli Speciali (Italy), Unic (France) and Magirus-Deutz (Germany) — to create IVECO (Industrial Vehicle Corporation). The Brescia plant has continued to play a strategic role, while evolving and adopting new production strategies and technologies.”

Evidence of this policy is that the Eurocargo, one of IVECO’s best-selling vehicles, was created there in 1991 and although updated many times since, is still being produced at the plant.

The Eurocargo production line is very complex — everything starts in the bodywork department, where various stamped panels are welded together to build the cabin of the vehicle. Once assembled, the cabin enters the painting area, a fully automated line where six robots apply enamel to the body after a cataphoresis painting process.

The cabin is then moved to the upholstering line, where the seats and dashboard are assembled, together with all the other necessary components. Meanwhile, the chassis is built in another department, before being paired with a cabin.

The frame enters another assembly line where the engine, gearbox, power pack, suspension system and mechanical components are mounted. The cabin and chassis should complete their cycles at the same time, to be paired and the Eurocargo vehicle completed.

Total efficiency

Mr Colonna added: “The production of Eurocargo makes us proud, because its huge range of configurations allows us to offer our customers about 13,000 different versions, with a projected repeatability index of about 2.85 for 2019. In other words, it is very rare that two identical vehicles are delivered at the same time.

“Obviously, keeping high-production efficiency with such significant product variability is not simple, and requires a structured logistic organisation because many materials are delivered to the various stations on a just-in-time basis and according to the production cycle.

“Consequently, the flow of information must be managed correctly as well, in order to ensure that everyone on the production line knows what to do at any given time and has all the necessary tools available to carry out their tasks.”

Such accurate and efficient organisation is the result of the application of the ‘World Class Manufacturing’ (WCM) philosophy, a strategy that incorporates the methodologies of total productive maintenance (TPM), lean manufacturing and total quality management.

ComauPaolo Gozzoli, WCM plant support, said: “WCM is a production approach that involves the company at every level and in every area, from production to safety, logistics and maintenance activities.

“The goal is to achieve efficiency in every department in an integrated way by means of tests and designed tools to manage specific inefficiencies. All our workforce must be involved and made aware that everyone’s contribution is essential to the improvement of our business efficiency.”

The natural consequence of the application of WCM was the redeployment of some of workers to the interior construction of minibuses with Daily engines. It is an almost artisanal production that IVECO is standardising as much as possible and, like any other department, it is subject to constant analysis and research aimed at the continuous improvement of processes.

Mr Gozzoli added: “The aspects examined also include the working conditions of our operators. This department features many activities that must be carried out while lifting the arms. A demanding condition in itself, which requires even more attention, considering that the average age of IVECO employees is around 49 years.

“For this reason, in the search for solutions that could make the work on minibuses as streamlined as possible, we started a collaboration with the Ideal Production System (IPS) division, whose task is to search for new ideas and tools to guarantee the best operating conditions for the workers and the plant as a whole.”

IVECO first came across Comau’s MATE exoskeleton at Automatica 2018 in Munich, where it was highlighted demonstrating its capabilities carrying out a number of different tasks.

Easy to use and lightweight

Mr Gozzoli explained: “During the event, we considered different types of exoskeletons, but Comau’s MATE immediately stood out as the ideal solution for our needs. First of all, we required a tool which could help our operators in activities involving the upper limbs without reducing their mobility due to its structure or size.

“Another crucial feature for us was our conviction that a wearable device should be easy to wear and lightweight, especially when taking into account summer heat as a potential detrimental factor in terms of comfort.”

Comau 2After a positive first impression, IVECO assessed the potential of MATE, trying to identify the most suitable tasks for an exoskeleton. An extremely complex operation, which was simplified by an assessment App developed by Comau, that quickly and objectively identifies how the exoskeleton can help in carrying out a given task.

Mr Gozzoli continued: “We have a long-term relationship with Comau, and this is confirmed by the 116 robots we have in our factory, which are constantly engaged in various activities.

“Besides being successful and long-lasting, this partnership has been very beneficial for us, as a result, we are among the companies which use Comau’s innovative products first.

“In some cases, we can even test them before they are introduced into the market, as in the case of the MATE app, which has allowed us to quickly identify the most suitable tasks for the use of an exoskeleton.”

Reduced fatigue

IVECO made the decision to provide MATE to some of its operators involved in the construction of minibuses. They used the exoskeleton for a few hours and they could immediately notice a clear improvement in their working conditions.

In one particular station, the operator is assisted by MATE in the placement of reinforcements and accessories in the upper part of the minibus.

For these tasks, the operators have to keep their arms raised overhead, resulting in trapezius-deltoid muscle fatigue — this was immediately reduced with the introduction of the exoskeleton — and they can now perform their jobs in a much more comfortable way.

Team leader Antonio Maccarinelli said: “I have used the MATE exoskeleton for a few a while now, and I must say that I immediately found relief, especially for my shoulders. When mounting the reinforcements in the upper part of the vehicle, I have to keep my arms raised for a long time, often while I am holding the tools I need to mount the various components.

“Even though they are all light objects, at the end of my shift I always noticed that this apparently minimal effort took its toll on my body. Now, my shoulders are in an excellent condition.

“Moreover, I must say that the device is really easy to wear. It is like carrying a backpack, and just needs a few initial settings to be immediately operational.

“Adjusting the shoulder straps is also quick and easy, which is really important, as I share a MATE exoskeleton with other operators. Each of us has a slightly different build, but we can easily adjust it to feel immediately comfortable.”