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Changing workplace: Digitalization and cognitive ergonomics

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Digitalization, automation and Industry 4.0 are impacting intralogistics. But how do employees cope with the upheavals of the digital revolution? This is what the still young discipline of cognitive ergonomics is investigating.

Smaller batch sizes and larger format changes, shorter product cycles and higher demands on delivery speed and flexibility – the changes in purchasing behavior and customer expectations associated with digitization are also directly reflected in intralogistics processes. At the same time, innovative, digital assistance systems such as robotics, wearables, RFID, etc., are holding their own. Moving into the warehouse, picking and shipping. Both mean a changed workload for the employees on site, whose tasks become more complex and run under greater time pressure.

Focus shifts to mental stress

Ergonomics is the adaptation of working conditions to people. Polluting environmental factors are, for example, poor lighting conditions, dirt, noise, smoke and dust or the wearing of protective clothing. In addition, there are physical exertions such as working in a standing position or under forced postures or lifting and carrying heavy loads. With the growing use of digital systems, the focus is now shifting to mental stress.

Dr. Veronika Kretschmer is a psychologist at the Fraunhofer Institute for Material handling and Logistics IML specializing in cognitive ergonomics. Within the framework of the Logistics and IT Service Center, an initiative of the Fraunhofer IML in Dortmund in cooperation with other research institutions, an interdisciplinary working group is investigating the extent to which digitization is changing the work of those affected. After all, despite all the automation, people are indispensable.

Our analyses show that employees in the warehouse are exposed to psychological demands in addition to physical strain. With the digital transformation of processes, informational stresses are now being added, which will lead to a changed stress pattern.

Order picking: Customer immediately notices faulty system

The penetration of information in the cost- and time-intensive picking area has greatly increased in recent years with the use of electronic aids such as hand scanners, pick-by-light, pick-by-voice or pick-by-vision. However, despite growing automation, manual systems still play a major role in order picking because they are often more flexible.

According to estimates, around 80% of processes are still performed manually. Order picking has an immediate effect on the company’s reputation because the customer immediately notices a faulty system. And if the focus has so far been on cost efficiency, a human-centered and ergonomic design of work environments and processes is increasingly required.

Augmented Reality has opportunities in short-term deployment

Among the “smart devices”, augmented reality (AR), the linking of reality with well-established information, has a special appeal.

A comparison of paper lists, tablets and AR glasses during palletizing suggests that AR is suitable, but usability needs to be improved.

Veronika Kretschmer refers to problems such as weight, costs and software diversity. She therefore sees the chances of this technology primarily in short-term use, for example in training or maintenance.

Virtual Serious Games for realistic trainings

Virtual reality techniques (VR) for training in the form of virtual serious games are an exciting field of investigation. They allow a VR-supported simulation for training and education with a realistic perception of situations that are difficult or cost-intensive to convey. In this way, learning success can be increased in a playful way. This is also shown by a study conducted by Veronika Kretschmar together with others. Here, the logistical activities of a packaging process were simulated realistically. The results showed good user-friendliness, a positive user experience and moderate stress.

The central goal of cognitive ergonomics is to create a “stress optimized design” of industry 4.0 systems. The changing work processes will also increase the physical and cognitive demands in intralogistics in the future. Veronika Kretschmer recommends that, in addition to the known physical strain, psychosocial activity characteristics and work organisational conditions should also be given greater consideration.

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Industrial Hardware and Machine Parts

Strong growth in food processing and packaging machinery

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The past year was very successful for the manufacturers of food processing and packaging machinery: production rose by 8 percent to just under 15.2 billion euros.

“Many manufacturers started 2018 with a very high order backlog, which was gradually converted into sales in the first half of the year. This, too, explains the very high growth rate of 8 percent for the year as a whole,” says Richard Clemens, Managing Director of the VDMA Food Processing and Packaging Machinery Association.

The Packaging Machinery Industry grew by a total of 8 percent to 7.1 billion euros. The “Other Packaging Machinery” segment increased by almost 12 percent to 4.9 billion euros, while the Beverage Packaging Machinery segment increased by 1 percent and reached 2.2 billion euros, only slightly above the previous year’s level.

Where Food Processing Machinery is concerned, the degrees of the growth rates in the individual sub-areas do vary somewhat – but all are positive: The production of meat processing machinery grew by 7.6 percent to 1.2 billion euros. The production of bakery machinery increased by 9 percent to 667 million Euro. The confectionery machinery manufacturers recorded growth of 16 percent reaching 360 million euros and the production of beverage production machines grew by 7 percent to 552 million euros.

Exports and investment climate remain strong in Germany

In 2018, exports of Food Processing and Packaging Machinery rose by 6.1 percent to over 9 billion euros. Deliveries to the industry’s most important sales region, the EU-28, rose by 9 percent. Demand from the USA – the most important foreign market – remained high. Exports to China and Russia showed double-digit growth rates. Clear impulses came from many other markets, including Brazil, Japan, the Republic of Korea and India.

Domestic business, too, continued to be an important pillar of the positive business development in 2018. In some food sectors, substantial investments were made in order to expand capacity and to expedite modernisation projects. Also, the shortage of personnel in the processing plants led to further investments in machinery and equipment.

The outlook for 2019 is subject to uncertainties

Generally, the prospects for the Food Processing Machinery and Packaging Machinery sector seem good, as the industry continues to benefit from the rising global demand for processed and packaged food and beverages as well as pharmaceutical products. However, against the background of the exceptionally strong growth last year, only moderate growth of at most 2 percent is likely to happen in 2019.

“Although sales in the first four months of 2019 were higher than in the same period of the previous year, the sales growth is expected to be only moderate at 2 percent. However, incoming orders in the first four months clearly fell short of the previous year’s level. Uncertainties due to ongoing trade disputes, but also many regional political crises, are causing investors to hold back with new orders,” Clemens comments on the business outlook for 2019.

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Industrial Hardware and Machine Parts

EBRD supports expansion of Aktiva, a metal fabricated parts maker

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The EBRD is lending €5 million to Aktiva, one of the leading metal processing and construction companies in North Macedonia, to support its expansion into supplying international companies with metal fabricated parts. The loan financing is part of EBRD efforts to boost the competitiveness of the country’s small and medium enterprises.

The EBRD loan will be used to complete Aktiva’s €10 million investment programme in upgrading production and coating capacity, including the installation of a new KTL (electro) coating line. It will support the company in becoming one of the leading regional “one-stop shop” metal engineering and processing companies. The project aims to help the company grow its metal processing segment and increase the export share of this business segment.

Aktiva, founded in 1999, provides metal fabrication services, as well as engineering, supervision and construction services for steel construction facilities.

Since entering the metal fabricated parts market in 2014, in cooperation with the Belgian bus producer Van Hool – one of the biggest foreign direct investors in North Macedonia – Aktiva has also started producing metal fabricated products for other international companies including Fast and ThyssenKrupp.

In line with the EBRD’s recently approved Country Strategy for North Macedonia, this financing supports and enhances value chain linkages in the private sector. The upgrade is planned at a time when growing numbers of large international companies are outsourcing and partnering with strategic reliable suppliers in south-eastern Europe, which can provide quality, flexible and competitive production as well as quick logistics.

To date the EBRD has invested nearly €1.9 billion in 117 projects in North Macedonia, with a focus on supporting the country’s integration into regional and global markets.

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Industrial Hardware and Machine Parts

Innovating food processing equipment with custom metal parts

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Have you ever had a piece of equipment that worked perfectly…except that one little part that gave you trouble — say, a filter that kept getting clogged or an electrical connector that was always on the fritz? Wouldn’t it be great if you could redesign just that one piece to improve the operation of the entire machine?

These are exactly the kinds of problems Switzer is equipped to solve.

The family-owned custom metal parts manufacturer works with customers across industries — aerospace, medical, telecommunication, optics and photonics, and food processing, and many others — to design and fabricate precision metal parts for use in a variety of innovative technologies. They even worked with X, Google’s R&D division, on Project Loon, which uses balloons flying in the stratosphere to provide Internet access to remote areas. Switzer developed custom metal components for the balloons’ power supply.

To learn more about their work in the food industry, we spoke with Joseph Dunlop, the company’s vice president of business development.

Tackling a common food and beverage industry challenge: Filtration

“Everyone’s trying to be better, smaller, faster, and more efficient with less field service required,” Dunlop says.

That’s certainly true in the food industry, where competition, low profit margins, and a shrinking workforce are pushing processors to improve their operations while cutting their costs. Switzer recently tackled these issues for a notable OEM.

Currently, most filters fall into the commodity category. They’re typically an inexpensive woven wire mesh that can be cut to size. Woven wire mesh may be cheap, but it has two major downsides:

  1. Blinding. Blinding occurs when particles get caked on the filter and prevent working fluids from moving through. This impairs the filter’s performance until it’s no longer usable. As a result, the filters have to be replaced frequently. It has a similar impact in grinding and pulverizing applications.
  2. Structure degradation. Over time, the fiber structure of wire mesh weakens. “The distance between the wires will grow and shrink based on how much media is going through the woven wire mesh filter, and how much fatigue it witnesses,” Dunlop explains.

The OEM wanted to eliminate these problems. They also imposed an additional caveat: the new filter had to fit into the same space as the old one. The goal wasn’t to redesign the entire machine, just to provide higher-quality, longer-lasting filtration.

“This was a cool engineering problem for us,” Dunlop says. What Switzer developed was a metal filter that was thinner and more efficient than the traditional wire mesh. “When we make filtration media, it’s a single piece and it’s flat. We don’t weave anything, so there’s no three-dimensional component, no Z direction.” The single-piece construct is also more durable than woven wire, so the filter doesn’t have to be replaced as often.

This is just one example of the kind of “bleeding edge” technology innovation Switzer can bring to the food industry. The possibilities are endless.

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