In its “Today for Tomorrow” demographics project, the BMW Group forecasts that 45 percent of its workforce will be more than 50 years old in 2020, and the proportion may be 50 percent by 2025. In the face of such forecasts, ergonomic workspaces are becoming increasingly important. According to the 2015 health report publish by the BKK (German health insurance umbrella group), muscular and skeletal conditions remain the number one reason for people being unfit to work. More than a quarter of all sick leave days could be traced back to these issues. The work processes in the automotive assembly in particular feature a high level of manual work, one-sided physical strain and short cycle times. Awkward bending, lifting and carrying puts a strain on bodies. Employees frequently move weights of 20 kg and more per handling unit. That puts a strain on the whole musculoskeletal system and highlights the importance of optimum workplace design.
The automotive industry is considered a pioneer in the ergonomic design of workplaces – and that is evident again at akkuteam Energietechnik GmbH, who are headquartered in Herzberg am Harz in Germany. This provider of battery and backup power technology was formed in 1997 and has around 40 employees, supplying a wide range of automotive manufacturers with products such as starter batteries. The company was faced with the issues outlined above while handling its batteries. The batteries produced by akkuteam are subject to stringent quality control measures. For this purpose, they are transported on pallets to the “battery care stations” using forklifts. There, they run through a number of different test steps including high-voltage leakage tests and cold-start current measurements. The employees move the batteries from the pallets to the testing station. Once the test is complete, the workers lift them back onto the pallet and arrange them: The components are packed in such a way that they arrive at the assembly line in the just-in-sequence order specified by the OEM.
Until now, these activities at akkuteam were performed purely with muscle power. The workers had the arduous job of lifting batteries weighing 20 kg and more to the test station and back to the pallet by hand. This work was very labor-intensive, placed a significant strain on employees and had a negative impact on their health. 1,700 batteries on average are moved to the test station and then back to the pallet during an eight hour shift. In this time, one worker moves a total weight of around 37 tons – and is, of course, worn out at the end of each shift. Furthermore, their fatigue leads to carelessness, and time and again products were damaged. To protect the employees and ensure that the batteries were handled safely, the management team decided to search for an alternative. It was clear to management that the right solution had to be very flexible: The starter batteries come in a wide range of shapes and sizes. There are different cover designs, some batteries have side grips and some are fitted with poles on the top. That posed special challenges for the handling technology. It had to be quick and easy to adapt to the different battery conditions.
With these issues in mind, akkuteam researched the market. Production managers assessed different products at trade shows and held discussions with several manufacturers, outlining their requirements in detail. Their first contact with Schmalz was the most promising. The company quickly outlined what a possible solution might look like. After a detailed analysis of on-site conditions, the vacuum specialist went on to present a solution that met the requirements of the specifications. akkuteam decided on the vacuum tube lifter JumboFlex Battery. The vacuum handling system from Schmalz performs several tasks at once: It grips, lifts and transports starter batteries of different shapes, sizes and weights efficiently and ergonomically – without any significant physical exertion for the user. The intuitive operator handle lets staff control the system with just one hand. The JumboFlex therefore makes work over several hours much less fatiguing and much more easy on the back.
A special feature of the gripper is the special sealing foam and suction resistors that it comes equipped with. It does not clamp the batteries from the side like conventional solutions, but picks them up from above. That allows it to move batteries with ease – regardless of whether they have different cover shapes or handles. The user can effortlessly pick up and transport the energy storage devices even when there is a high pack density. The lifting unit comprises a flexible hose, which provides the suction flow required for a secure grip. The handling system at akkuteam is completed by a Schmalz aluminum crane system. It covers a large work area and is the ideal supplement to the tube lifter. The power required to move the load with this responsive system is only around half as much as with comparable steel systems.
The processes at the energy technology specialists have been improved significantly by the complete solution provided by Schmalz. The solution protects the health of staff and has made burdensome bending and lifting a thing of the past. Furthermore, the batteries are transported with greater care and without damaging them. akkuteam has also improved its cycle times thanks to the tube lifter JumboFlex Battery and crane system. “My work has become much easier thanks to the Schmalz system. At the end of the shift, I feel much better than before,” reports team leader Rainer Thiede happily. In addition, much more batteries arrive at and leave the test station than in the times of arduous manual labor. “Before, we were quicker for a short time at the start of the shift, but our performance then fell significantly soon afterward. Now our work is much more consistent,” says Rainer Thiede.
akkuteam has been using the Schmalz solution for more than one year now and the intuitive system design meant that hardly any training time was needed. “Our experiences with the tube lifter JumboFlex have only been positive so far. Our staff are very happy because they are put under much less physical strain. They like working with the tube lifter and are impressed by how easy it is to operate,” says Norbert Engel from the management team. According to akkuteam, the amount of damage to products has decreased significantly because employees are better able to concentrate on their actual work – and not on the pains in their muscles. “Schmalz met our expectations 100 percent,” says Engel. There is also much praise for their collaboration throughout the whole project. akkuteam reports that the company took a forensic approach to the specifications sheet and quickly presented a proposal for a practical solution. For akkuteam, the service provided was a significant factor. Norbert Engel: “If we establish more battery care stations in the future, we will be coming back to Schmalz.”