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Thermo Fisher Scientific, a leading manufacturer of laboratory technology, designed new incubators to cultivate human and animal cells. With 55,000 employees worldwide and group sales of $17 billion, Thermo Fisher Scientific is one of the world’s largest providers of laboratory and analysis technology. The company headquarters are located in Waltham, MA, near Boston.

Assembly of the new 40-lb (18-kg) incubators was physically very demanding, requiring numerous rotations to cover them with heater foils, followed by insulation. Concerned with protecting the health of its employees, the company installed ergonomic workstations with modular units from Roemheld (Hessian Laubach, Germany) that lift and rotate the incubators during the preassembly process. Roemheld is represented in North America by Carr Lane Roemheld Mfg Co. (Fenton, MO).

Heracell Vios incubators are a successor to the top-selling Heracell model, which sold 75,000 units in 15 years. Designed for medical engineering and health research in universities and research laboratories, the incubators are assembled in Thermo Fisher Scientific’s plant near Frankfurt, Germany.

To prepare production of the new incubator, Felix Pergande, technical head of production for Thermo Fisher Scientific, and Stefan Kämmerer, production resources engineer, developed a prototype of the assembly workstation in 2013. They then used this to develop a new series production line, which resulted in a “start-up plant” in September 2014.

“During this period of about half a year, we have had the overall responsibility for the incubator production,” Pergande said, “from organization and material procurement through to quality assurance. We industrialized production in this time. As soon as it is well engineered, we handed it over to the responsible people in the Incubator department.”

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“Carr Lane Roemheld’s modular units for assembly and handling consist of numerous modules that provide for the optimum ergonomic position of objects for manual assembly. Horizontal and vertical rotation, tilting, lifting, placement, and movement are the basic manipulations,” said Vilcek. “The units can be combined into modular systems for loads from 22 to 1325 lb [10–601 kg] with manual or electrical operation. A rotary module with media feed-ducts allows for the hydraulic, electrical, or pneumatic operation of devices held by zero-point clamping systems without complex boring.”

“Roemheld’s consultation quality is extremely high,” said Pergande. “They intensely and dedicatedly responded to our individual requirements. In addition, their products are very reliable and can be configured according to our requirements. We do not have to buy anything ready-made.”

For the new manual assembly workstation, ergonomics were of particular significance to Kämmerer. The earlier incubator series had been assembled on height-adjustable tables, but the 40-lb (18-kg) units had to be moved manually without any auxiliary equipment.

“For this reason, preassembly of the inner containers required a lot of handling and was physically more demanding,” said Kämmerer. “This had to be improved for the production of the new series.”

The inside 28 × 18″ (711 × 457-mm) casing which is open to the front for the 42-gal (159-L) incubator is manufactured in Thermo Fisher’s own sheetmetal workshop. In preassembly, an employee covers all five sides with heater foils, which requires that the container be rotated several times. Apart from this, a sensor and a fixture have to be mounted. The entire process takes about 45 minutes, and the outside casing and insulation are assembled over it. The site in Langenselbold has about 150 assembly employees, of whom eight are assigned to the manufacture of incubators, in one or two shifts.

With the support of Manfred Parr, Roemheld assembly technology product manager, Kämmerer and Pergande designed a line of four similar assembly workstations arranged successively. Two of them are suitable for the assembly of the larger incubator models.

All workstations comprise an electronic shop-floor lift module with a stroke of 8″ (203 mm), which can be lifted and lowered by a pushbutton. A rotary module may be released manually in steps of 45°; allowing the fitter to use two foot switches without walking around the container.

“The prototype of the assembly workstations had only one foot switch. In order to work more efficiently, the fitters had the idea of a second foot switch; this suggestion could rapidly be implemented by Roemheld,” Kämmerer said.

After the design of the assembly workstations was completed, he ordered the components from Roemheld and assembled them. To preserve the surface finishes during work, he also developed a clamping device provided with brushes on the bearing surfaces.

“The clear position fixation and the defined handling by means of the 45° indices noticeably reduced the risk of dents in the container,” Pergande said. Time savings and cost reduction are not high priorities in this design, though both are achieved. He emphasizes that ergonomic workstation design contributes to protecting employee health and that “the absence of an employee costs money, because either we cannot produce or we have to assign a replacement.” Fewer rejects and healthier employees contribute to cost savings and enhance Thermo Fisher’s success.

Thermo Fisher equipment fitter Steffen Hillesheim said “an ergonomic workstation like this is invaluable. It is good for the back, neck and shoulders and is a noticeable relief. The body feels it immediately.”

Thermo Fisher Scientific intends to improve other single workstations and entire lines under lean manufacturing aspects in the future. “This will also include the analysis of handling aspects,” says Pergande. “Since it is often inefficient to reduce wage cost by automation, we want to design our manual workstations as ergonomically and efficiently as possible. The standard interface conception of the modular units is very helpful in this regard, because it allows for the flexible and uncomplicated planning of future workstations.”

Edited by Senior Editor Jim Lorincz.

This article was first published in the June 2016 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.

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