What do the movie Avatar, Tony Hawk’s skateboard video games, and automotive manufacturing have in common? They all use advanced motion capture technology.

In Avatar, real human movements were recorded using a sophisticated motion capture system to drive the actions of Na’vi creatures in virtual environments. Similarly, avatar movements in Tony Hawk’s video games are based on real skateboarder’s manoeuvres that were recorded using the same technology. In the automotive manufacturing industry, companies such as Ford, GM, and Chrysler use human avatars (or digital human models) on a virtual assembly line to build vehicles properly and safely before production moves to a real automotive assembly plant. This process can be thought of as “pro-active virtual ergonomics”

Did you know? Pro-active virtual ergonomics in automotive manufacturing uses motion capture technology to drive the movements of avatars who perform assembly line workstation task.

Ergonomics is used and practiced daily by all of us, and is what allows us to perform tasks in a safe, comfortable, and efficient way. For example, the handle on your toothbrush may be ergonomically curved to fit the shape of your hand when you grasp it; or you may use the adjustability in your desk chair (e.g. seat height, backrest tilt, armrest height, etc.) to work at your computer from a more ergonomic position. Likewise, in automotive manufacturing, we use ergonomics with assembly-line workers to prevent accidents and mistakes that may lead to injuries or defective vehicles.

Did you know? Ergonomics is a critical step in making sure assembly line workers are healthy, happy, and able to be productive.

With motion capture technology, we can check every workstation on the assembly line in a virtual environment months before the real worker builds a single vehicle. We do this by asking real humans to simulate how they might perform the task, and then streaming their movement data into an avatar at a virtual replication of the assembly-line workstation. Then biomechanics, or physics of the human body, is used to determine if the movements are safe by estimating how hard the body’s muscles have to work in order to perform a given task in a given posture (e.g. shoulder stretched overhead, torso leaning forward).

Did you know? In an ergonomic assessment, biomechanics is the science used to evaluate the potential for physical injuries to occur as a result of the job description and workstation design.

Without this technology, ergonomic assessments on an assembly line must be performed in real-time. In this situation, there's a much greater risk that unsafe workstations will not be noticed until after a worker has been injured or made mistakes. Thus, virtual ergonomics prior to actual production is a pro-active approach and one that automotive manufacturers recognize has significant benefits for improving both worker safety and vehicle quality.

Virtual ergonomics is not just restricted to the North American automotive industry. In Europe, companies such as Renault, Fiat, and BMW are also using the technology. What's really exciting is that the technology continues to evolve. Researchers are now looking at new ways to make it more cost-efficient, more accurate, and less time consuming.

Who knows? Maybe some day Hollywood will produce a blockbuster based on digital technology from the automotive industry!

Learn More!

Virtual Manufacturing Goes Global - Ford Motor Co. (pdf)

Ford Virtual Ergonomic Assembly (Video)

The human side of Avatar (CurioCity article)

Tony Hawk’s Project 8 (Video)

Tara is the co-author of two publications that describe specific research in the area of pro-active virtual ergonomics for automotive manufacturing (see below).

Kajaks, T., Stephens, A. Potvin, J.R. (2011) The effect of manikin anthropometrics and posturing guidelines on the validity of proactive ergonomic assessments using digital human models, International Journal of Human Factors Modelling and Simulation, 2(3), 236-253. Fiacco, E., Stephens, A., Harrington, G., Kajaks, T. (2009) The evaluation of hose insertion tasks using digital human models, Society of Automotive Engineers, 2009-01-2275.

(Photo from the Ford Motor Company)

Article first published March 6, 2012

Tara Kajaks

Tara Kajaks is a PhD candidate in the department of kinesiology at McMaster University, where she is part of a multi-disciplinary team that studies occupational biomechanics, ergonomics, and motor behaviour. Kajaks is a student researcher with AUTO21, Canada’s automotive research and development program. She is also a trainee in the transdisciplinary Workplace Disability Prevention Program, a CIHR-funded international strategic training program.  

Kajaks’ interest in automotive manufacturing ergonomics stems from her work experience in the virtual ergonomics laboratory at Ford Motor Company. Building on this experience, her doctoral research now focuses on the advancement of proactive virtual ergonomic practices by both improving posture prediction methods and understanding potential risks for workplace musculoskeletal injuries during the automobile assembly process. Her research interests also include the study of neuromuscular fatigue and investigating occupational risk factors for knee osteoarthritis.



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