Ford's 'happy seat' improves life on the assembly line in Europe

(April 28, 2011) COLOGNE, Germany — When Henry Ford pioneered the moving assembly line, he could not have imagined that more than 100 years later, Ford Motor Company would still be refining and improving this seminal innovation.

Seeking to address issues such as an aging workforce and the physical tolls of working for many years on the assembly line, Ford convened a team of occupational physicians, production specialists, labour groups and representatives for disabled employees to improve the ergonomics, safety and productivity on the assembly line.

This led to the creation of the Happy Seat — a swivel chair attached to a rod-shaped suspension. It allows workers to sit on the production line while assembling cars and glide into the car while fitting pedal boxes, for example, instead of bending over. The first Happy Seat was installed at the workstation to install wiring roof antennae at Genk, Belgium, in 1998 with Cologne’s Happy Seat following in 2002. Today, Happy Seats are also in use at Valencia, Spain, and Saarlouis, Germany.

“It’s called the Happy Seat for a good reason — it makes a tough job easier for workers in our plants,” says Eilis Carey, a senior ergonomist for Ford of Europe. “Operations which previously required awkward postures to be maintained for prolonged periods can now be performed in a seated position with adequate lumbar support.”

The Happy Seat allows employees with more experience to stay integrated in existing work groups while health and productivity levels are retained. “The ergonomics of the workstation are improved and operators’ discomfort and fatigue are reduced, leading to reduced injuries and illnesses, less absenteeism, and improved quality of the operations,” Carey said.

José Lorenzo, a C-MAX production line worker at Ford’s Valencia plant, says the Happy Seat has been a big help: “Now, we access the C-MAX’s engine compartment from below and through the chassis. With the previous Focus model, we worked from ​​above and had less space, which restricted our movements and increased the risk of injuries when working inside the engine compartment.

“The new Happy Seat has been designed to be deployed on the C-MAX. It has improved ergonomics, so that our job is now safer and more comfortable. Despite the small space, you can adopt a healthier and, above all, safer posture.

“In my opinion, Happy Seat has definitely improved safety and ergonomics. Now, it is much easier to access the engine compartment and to leave it after finishing your job. Our job demands less physical effort and entails fewer risks. As a result, operators work more effectively and the operation itself has become more efficient.”

Martin Chapman, operations plant manager in Cologne factory, where Ford produces the Fiesta, adds: “Employees’ work at the assembly plant has become considerably easier and less physically demanding at this part of production line. Before the Happy Seat, employees had to bend over to install the pedal box inside the car. It literally was a pain in the back.

“Employees just push themselves back and forth and the chair swings in and out of the cabin — very simply and not requiring much physical effort. And the back feels fine, allowing employees to remain in employment longer to the benefit of Ford – ideally until they reach the age of retirement, the age of which many European governments have raised only recently.”

Further measures employed by Ford to ensure production line workers’ health include movable platforms to raise vehicle chassis to different heights at various workstations, preventing excessive stretching and bending by employees; virtual software programs to design the most ergonomic production processes possible; and Santos, a computerized avatar that performs actions in the virtual world to help Ford improve quality, safety and ergonomics for its assembly line employees.