August 2020

Logistics Quick Wins - Article Series by Pierau Planung (4/8)

Pierau Planung plans and implements logistics. As logistics consultants, we are often asked to advise on high shipping volumes, challenging returns, large construction projects or the introduction of WMS or ERP systems - so why are we concerning ourselves with things that at first glance might seem quite trivial in our “Quick Win” series?

The answer is simple – it’s because these small details are everywhere. Our team of consultants looks at many logistics processes in the field from a completely objective point of view. As different as all these systems and processes are, they all share one thing in common: often a tweak here or there can have maximal effect with minimal effort.

There are many areas of logistics processing where Quick Wins can be identified and implemented. For further information please read our articles on ‘Tidiness in the Warehouse’, ‘Warehouse Structure, Take One: ABC’ and ‘Fulfillment of Single Unit Shipments’.

Our latest article from the Quick Wins series is all about Workstation Ergonomics.

The term ergonomics is defined as the best possible reciprocal interaction between people and their working conditions. Although this is a clear, scientific definition, in practice the topic is far from being so clear and easy to master. The position and layout of workstations determine the movements of employees and vice versa. Over the course of time, some employees become so accustomed to the existing conditions that it is often difficult to recognize the need for improvement. Optimization measures, when they come, are not always welcomed because they represent a change from the familiar. However, a lack of ergonomics has a number of negative effects. No matter how small they are, unnecessary procedures such as transporting extra goods or covering further distances can slow down processes and put an additional strain on employees. This in turn can lead to increased sickness rates and can exclude experienced, now less physically resilient, employees from some tasks. However, just as comparatively small obstacles in ergonomics slow down logistics, their removal often leads to a rapid increase in performance.

The effects are such that as the health, efficiency and motivation of employees increase, the personnel absence rate together with the error rate decrease.

Healthy and motivated employees are the key to efficient processes. It is, therefore, vital that you always keep an eye on optimization possibilities and recognize as early as possible when processes are not (or are no longer) running optimally. So, go through your warehouse carefully; take a critical look at individual work tasks and make your employees aware of them:

•   How is the workstation designed?

•   Where does your employee have to perform unnecessary, repetitive movements or movements that strain the musculoskeletal system?

•   Where is the equipment they use located?

•   Are there any materials, tools or other aids that might make your employee's work easier?

•   Is there sufficient freedom of movement or scope for changes of direction, for example, so as to prevent repetitive actions?

A streamlined workstation design that takes into account ergonomic aspects can do a lot in terms of employee health and motivation and thus contribute significantly to the company's success. If new workstations are installed, it makes sense in any event to simulate and test them in advance, especially by involving the employees themselves. The possibilities are wide-ranging and can include, as an example, test setups. One method uses a simple replica made up of cardboard boxes in which ergonomically ideal conditions can be identified and then implemented for basic workstations. For example, by installing height-adjustable tables for optimum standing and sitting comfort or tables with work surfaces that are as long as necessary and as short as possible.

Another method, achievable with the very latest technology, uses totally interactive 3D-simulation with body scanners and is highly efficient. In this case, the movements of the real-life employee equipped with VR-glasses and corresponding sensors at a virtual workstation are displayed in the simulation software via an avatar. Incorrect or excessive loads on the musculoskeletal system are shown in red on the monitor. In the virtual room, the workstation can be adjusted until the sequence of movements no longer puts a strain on the employee. Using the simulation results, the real workstations can be set up immediately without time-consuming and costly readjustments. Even existing workstations can often be quickly streamlined.

Here are the most essential Quick Wins:

•   Optimal routing: Make sure that your employees do not walk long distances or make unnecessary trips at their workstations. Even small in-between steps add up to large, unnecessary distances over the course of a working day. Finding the best routes increases working speed and efficiency.

•   Minimize reach and picking times: Ensure that your employees have tools and equipment within easy reach and sorted by access frequency so as to save valuable working time. The amount of tools and equipment also needs to be optimized to reduce additional replenishment runs.

•   Efficient movement sequences: One way to protect the health of your employees is to ensure that they always reach into the shelf from a flat angle. Rotational movements, such as 90° body rotations, should also be avoided.

Improved ergonomics can also be achieved by the targeted arrangement of workstations. This includes height adjustability as well as finding the optimal length of tables or work surfaces or positioning monitors at suitable viewing heights. Easily obtainable aids include soft workstation mats or standing supports that relieve joint and back strain.

By incorporating moderate relaxation exercises or changes of direction into work routines, problems caused by lack of concentration or tension and cramps in the musculoskeletal system can be prevented. In addition, right- or left-handed employees need to be accommodated. In this case, easy convertibility of workstations, for example, through modular design should be considered in the planning phase.

•   Material and equipment selection: Critically examine each tool used and research the advantages and disadvantages of the alternatives. For example, use snap-on lids instead of flap boxes to spare your employees unnecessary, straining movements (don’t forget the air holes in the box so that air can escape!). Permanently mounted scanners or brackets for scanners allow employees more leeway, as they do not have to hold the devices in their hands all the time.

•   Avoid unnecessary loads: Using so-called transfer bridges (a type of connecting element) in the order picking and packing area can compensate for differences in levels between worktables and conveyor systems. This is particularly important when feeding in goods and removing finished packages from one workstation to the next. Slides or robot-automated sequences can also bring about ergonomic improvements in the work processes.

At the workstations themselves, the employees' movement sequences can also be best supported with technology by using manipulation aids such as vacuum lifters, which enable loads to be lifted effortlessly. Lifting devices that elevate fully loaded pallets to working height or sprung floor trolleys also help to maintain an optimum posture during loading or unloading.

•   Optimal workstation lighting: Adapting lighting conditions to the activity being performed is frequently underestimated, but it is important and can be implemented quickly. Those who can clearly see what they are doing work faster, safer and more efficiently.

•   Time recordings in accordance with the REFA method: To analyze movement sequences for the design of optimal work processes, time recordings in accordance with the standardized method of the REFA can be used. REFA (Reichsausschuss für Arbeitszeitermittlung) is the Association for Work Design, Company Organization and Business Development in Germany. Work processes of all employees, such as packaging or carton sealing, are broken down into small increments and recorded in real-time. Based on this evaluation, areas for improvement can be identified and implemented. The participation of all employees is essential - and this is not without problems in view of the transparency of the individual work performance resulting from the methodology. Therefore, the works council, if there is one, should be involved and all employees should be heard. An important point to note is that the companies themselves cannot carry out REFA analyses. As a rule, external support is required and makes sense in order to derive further measures to optimize ergonomics.

The Quick Wins series from Pierau Planung at a glance:

1. Tidiness in the warehouse

2. Warehouse Structure, Take One: ABC

3. Fulfillment of Single Unit Shipments

4. Ergonomics

5. Storage Location Optimization

6. Warehouse Structure, Take Two

7. Optimal Shipping Packaging

8. Music