Int J Adv Manuf Technol (2013) 68:141–148

DOI 10.1007/s00170-012-4714-y

ORIGINAL ARTICLE

Modelling human performance within an automotive
engine assembly line
Qian Wang & Martin Sowden & Antony R. Mileham

Received: 14 April 2011 / Accepted: 26 December 2012 / Published online: 11 January 2013
# Springer-Verlag London 2013

Abstract In this paper, we first investigate a semiautomated automotive engine assembly line in which the
traditional strategy of using fixed workers in each manual
assembly section is replaced by a new strategy of using
walking workers. With this approach, both worker and
engine travel simultaneously down the line; each worker is
previously trained to accomplish a series of assembly tasks
independently from start to finish in each manual assembly
section. The study has shown great improvement of the
overall system performance in terms of flexibility, efficiency, responsiveness and re-configurability using dynamic,
flexible and skilled walking workers. Nevertheless, the main
problem of this design is that each worker needs to be crosstrained to acquire a satisfactory level of skills associated
with the assignment of assembly tasks. This is crucial for
achieving a relatively even working speed at which each
worker assembles a product down the line without major
interruption between two adjacent workstations. In theory,
the familiar degree of completing assigned tasks by each
worker through training can be measured and expressed as a
learning curve. In this case, the learning curve has been used
to determine a trade-off decision between the complexity of
assigned tasks and the duration of completing these tasks by
a walking worker at a stabilised level. It has also been used
to investigate the impact of the system variation that may
Q. Wang (*)
Department of Mechanical and Design Engineering,
University of Portsmouth, Portsmouth PO1 3DJ, UK
e-mail: qian.wang@port.ac.uk
M. Sowden : A. R. Mileham
Department of Mechanical Engineering,
University of Bath, Bath BA2 7AY, UK
M. Sowden
e-mail: m.sowden@bath.ac.uk
A. R. Mileham
e-mail: a.r.mileham@bath.ac.uk

affect the performance of individual walking workers
through a learning process. Thus, the paper also describes
a framework to assess the human performance by modelling
the learning curve for each walking worker based in an
integrated model. This model was created using a simulation
tool Witness with its key input/output data manipulated
externally by a series of Microsoft Excel worksheets incorporating the effect of a number of human factors in terms of
cognitive and physical elements. With this method, the
possible and realistic assignment of selected assembly tasks
for each walking worker can be quantified.
Keywords Modelling . Assembly . Human performance .
Learning curves

1 Introduction
Effective usage of labour resources is one of the most
critical issues affecting the performance of manufacturing
systems, where labour costs are high either because production operations are labour intensive or production systems
require highly skilled workforce. In a research of human
resource aspect, most of new workers are selected in an
assessment based on their ability to learn, mental flexibility
and social competence [1]. Shih et al. [2] attempt to develop
a job infrastructure that provides core selection measures in
terms of high worker performance. Nevertheless, companies
are constantly looking for ways to decrease labour costs and
have been changing their workforce management strategy
from one that implements perfect divisions of workforce to
one that takes advantage of workforce agility in various
forms. For instance, one way of improving worker flexibility is to cross-train workers to perform a number of tasks
rather than a fixed assignment of a single task in the conventional way. Cross-training policies are known to have
many other positive effects such as improvement of

the cycle time of each manual assembly section is often broken up. conveyors and so on. In practice. There are some studies in a view of socio-technical or psychological sciences to evaluate the effect of human factors relating to the design of manufacturing systems. Although this improvement may be useful to achieve better performance of individual workers. their shift patterns and routes. less repetitive stress and less fatigue [3. and an adjustment of it in the actual system has to be made based on personal experiences and judgement from production managers. Furthermore. however. The most common way in coping with this variability problem is to add sizable buffers into the production line. Production losses may occur due to the fact that each worker initially needs more time to reach and stabilise their proficient levels in operations as required through training in a learning and forgetting process [5. in a discrete event simulation (DES) model. In practice. the workers are defined and treated as a simple resource the same as parts.142 communication among workers. several different types of engines are often assembled on a hybrid automatic manual assembly line. this issue is often overlooked by manufacturing system designers. This type of system is typically a combination of automatic assembly machines (robots) interspersed with manual assembly sections. At each automatic workstation. they are basically in a form of language that manufacturing engineers often find difficult to understand. This is because. The engine block is often mounted on a standard-sized platen that travels down the line through a conveyor system. it cannot provide an answer of human performance that impacts the overall system performance of such as an assembly line. and therefore. where each assembly worker at each workstation performs single or multiple repetitive assembly work on an engine block. this type of manufacturing system is human centred as its performance largely depends on humans (or human performances) rather than machines. machines. Moreover. Moreover. there is a natural variability. However. increase in job satisfaction and self-motivation and beneficial ergonomics such as less boredom. 6]. Despite these advantages. and it spreads out across more than one workstation along the line. Manual assembly is. The increase of worker flexibility (due to crosstraining) may incur some costs that can counteract its benefits. can be expensive. As the variation of processing times performed by each fixed worker at each workstation increases. this cycle time may vary due to human performance variation. The assembly of an engine is a complex process which involves the integration of a wide variety of components to Int J Adv Manuf Technol (2013) 68:141–148 create a range of different engine types (different capacities. on a mixed-model line. In modern automotive engine assembly plants. fuel injection options or petrol/diesel). This is largely due to the uneven performance of walking workers who may have varying proficient levels of assembly skills obtained from training. for example. Furthermore. by contrast. In other aspect. This approach simply increases work-in-process (WIP) throughput time and adds unnecessary costs. nevertheless. can vary significantly along the line. current modelling simulation tools in the market for manufacturing systems evaluation do not provide facilities that allow system designers to combine human attributes (or human performance) into an investigation of the overall system performance. carried out by workers. by definition. In theory. The current paper presents a feasibility study of applying flexible walking workers into a semi-automated automotive engine assembly line in a local company. who walks and stops at each station to assemble an engine. the conventional line has to be fully manned at all times as each workstation needs at least one assembly worker to operate. crosstrained workers with higher flexibility and workers with lower flexibility need to be quantified as it is a costeffective consideration for workforce planning and deployment policies for production. Modelling techniques are used to consider such human issues as ergonomics in order to improve the environment for workers to perform at a workplace or in a production area with better conditions. a consideration of human performance often becomes a situation of uncertainty in designing a manufacturing system when human workers or operators are involved in production. The main concern of this re-configured walking worker line is that the working speed of each worker. cross-training. each type of engine assembly is processed for an almost constant period of cycle time. The advantages and disadvantages of using this walking worker approach are discussed in this paper. to assign an equal task time at each workstation may not be possible as some tasks may not be divisible. the work content assigned to each assembly worker at each workstation should be made as even as possible in order to achieve a relatively balanced production pace. 4]. The individual performance may also be affected by human factors . Thus. variation between models adds further imbalance to the system. to balance the manual assembly line is a very difficult task because people do not work at the same pace as each other or at the same pace all the time. This can be achieved by making a moderate modification to the original configuration of the assembly line and providing crosstraining to the original workforce of assembly workers. and the in-process inventory can build up. The application of DES simulation models is therefore restricted to predicting such variables as the required number of workers. most modelling simulation practices in the production research literature have focused on conventional systems in which operators are tied to specific tasks or stations. This can also lead to poor responsiveness in the system’s re-configuration to accommodate the varying demand of outputs. the overall output rate can be disrupted.

low-variation balanced systems require no buffers. They are then removed from the platens and are transferred to storage. crank. Assembly workstations are connected together by accumulation conveyors. Figure 1 illustrates a simplified part of the final engine assembly line using the walking worker approach. each worker is generally trained to master only those skills needed to service one workstation along the line. This has been accomplished by establishing an integrated simulation model. Empty platens are returned back to the first workstation where new engine blocks are loaded on the platens. there are 28 workstations (WS1–28) across all the manual assembly sections in the original production line. Within the original configuration. Fewer traditional buffers are required. This method permits a rapid rebalancing in a mixed-model production as long as the sum of the work content assigned to each worker is approximately equal. but it is subject to the limitation of space and the increase of WIP or flow time. In the plant. The paper describes a methodology that has been used to evaluate the performance of individual walking workers by modelling their operational performances through a learning curve. The last operation at the end of the line is testing.e. some human factors may also reduce the effect of work time variations using this approach. Each casting engine block is loaded and secured on a platen manually at a load workstation. i. In order to maintain a constant production rate with the least number of interruptions on the line.Int J Adv Manuf Technol (2013) 68:141–148 including cognitive elements (such as experience. In this case. The research by the authors has shown that there are some advantages using this design of the walking worker approach. 2 The re-configured line using walking workers The final engine assembly line in the plant is complex but. if a slower worker is causing other assembly workers behind that worker to be slowed down. Each engine block travels from one workstation to the next on a conveyor. Engines that are rejected at the test stands are routed to the repair area to be re-worked. Adjustability of staffing levels in response to varying production volumes becomes possible. to the final engine assembly line for assembly. IQ level and so on) and physical elements (age. each worker cannot be starved due to lack of a job. all finished engines are tested (hot test) at the test stand area. It consists of assembly workstations at which a series of assembly operations are carried out manually. different types of engine blocks are machined automatically through a series of flexible CNC machines following the same process route [7. the learning curve was used to examine the complexity of assigned tasks and the duration of completing these tasks at a stabilised level. We name this type of worker who performs a single assignment of assembly tasks at one workstation as fixed worker. With this approach. 8]. It was also used to determine the effect of the inherent system variation that impacts the performance of individual walking workers during a learning process. and they are summarised below: & & & & & Each worker is cross-trained so that they are capable of completing some assembly tasks of a unit as required and do this individually by walking from workstation to workstation down the line. it requests a theoretical method which can be used to measure the familiar degree of assigned tasks that each walking worker will perform for assembling a new product along the production line at a stable pace. together with completed subassemblies (cylinder head. gender. a realistic and cost-effective assignment of selected assembly tasks for each walking worker can be quantified. which was created in a combination of a simulation tool Witness and Microsoft (MS) Excel worksheets to capture the effect of a number of human factor variables in terms of cognitive and physical elements. The authors investigated a semi-automated engine assembly line as described above based at an engine manufacturing plant in the region. linear. all sub-assemblies and components are assembled to the engine block at different workstations. 2. there will be an increasing pressure on that individual walking worker to work faster. Each worker in each manual assembly section travels with a partially assembled engine downstream and stops at each workstation carrying out the essential assembly work as scheduled. A balance in obtaining a synchronous production pace among these workstations was found difficult to keep up all the time. In total. and the slowest worker (bottleneck) can be simply removed from the line without actually interrupting the current production to . The individual performance of each worker can easily be identified. The line has six highly automated machines 143 (AM1–6) that separate the five individual manual assembly sections. buffers between workstations are added. on the whole. and each worker is trained to be capable of performing all the assembly tasks from beginning to end. The authors have carried out a feasibility study on the reconfigured engine assembly line in which fixed workers are replaced by skilled walking workers as shown in Fig. With this design. each workstation in each manual assembly section is operated by assigning one worker to perform a single and repetitive task. For example. blocking rates or in-process waiting times can be altered and minimised by using an optimal number of walking workers on the line. and the line is virtually operated in an on/off manner. piston and connecting rod assemblies). they are then delivered.. semi-automatically or automatically. Consequently. dexterity and so on). the production pace along the line is often disrupted.

144 Int J Adv Manuf Technol (2013) 68:141–148 Fig. better use of human resources and a relatively steady state of the system during production. the slower worker along the line can be a major bottleneck that leads to production loss. A related study has shown that the system has better tolerance of work time variation. Although both powered and non-powered conveyance systems can be used for walking worker assembly lines. Non-powered simple conveyance system can be used for the system. accountability and responsibility can be improved due to the nature of this design as each individual completes their own products for which quality or defective rates can be monitored against individuals. the walking worker approach leads to high labour utilisation. compared to the conventional assembly line using fixed workers where each worker only performs one single assembly task at one station. simple. This walking worker strategy also allows the employer to cope with employee absenteeism more effectively. Greater reduction of WIP levels can be achieved by this design. compared to the conventional fixed worker line. different working speeds and/or individual learning abilities. a replacement of the slowest worker is essential before restoring the production. 2 Walking workers in one of manual assembly sections Walking Workers WS7 WS8 WS9 WS10 WSe2 . less costly conveyance system is encouraged to be used wherever it is possible on the line because of the nature of walking worker assembly lines where each walking worker always accompanies with the assembled work by travelling from one station to the next station to carry out assembly tasks down the line. as there is no in-process inventory of items apart from those being worked on by the walking workers. The workpicece such as assembled engine in this case. a non-powered. Thus. the suitability of completing a series of operational tasks by a walking worker largely depends on the complexity of operations as well as the degree of cross-training. it can be difficult to train every worker to perform the same work content with equal efficiency. can be easily pushed down the line by the worker who carries out the assigned assembly tasks from station to station. Some shortcomings of using this walking worker approach were also identified by the authors. they are mainly caused by human performance variation as follows: & & The overall system performance can be adversely affected by the varying performance of walking workers due to such as uneven skilled workers. Fig. 1 The layout of the reconfigured engine assembly line using walking workers in each manual assembly section & & & continue. which is secured in the & platen. In reality.

The use of learning curve modelling techniques can also minimise production losses associated with workers’ learning to perform assembly operations on new products and to optimise the assignment of tasks to teams of workers so that productivity can be maximised [14]. The Witness model describes the physical elements and their logical interrelationship with specific rules to form the simulation model of the walking worker assembly line. it becomes more difficult to learn and easier to forget. which interacts with external MS Excel worksheets to capture walking workers’ activities in the dynamic assembly system. For instance. 3 The behaviour of the learning curve during a learning process in assembly equipment and automotive assembly. represents the improved efficiency or performance obtained from repeating an operation of a specific task by a worker. also known as experience curve. The human attributes. For instance. the accuracy of established simulation models can be negatively affected without considering the effect of human performance. The use of learning curve to inform estimates of overall manufacturing times in order to create or meet production targets is well established [15]. and it may also be improved through professional training. The learning curve. learning curve analysis of the manufacturing data may help operations planning by determining the best allocation of engineering effort and capital budget to improve operations and providing more accuracy for short. can be measured and quantified. 11] examined that two major factors in assembly processes mostly affect worker performances: product variety and task complexity. Its main applications are in the areas of such as production planning. age and dexterity) in order to generate the variation of human performance by individual walking worker. the familiar degree of assembly tasks. the system performance largely relies on the performance of individual workers. which may be used to assess the human performance of a manual assembly system. however. the learning process model was established using the simulation tool Witness. The Excel worksheet defines a number of human factor variables (such as worker experience. the prediction of human performance or behaviour in a manufacturing system evaluation is often overlooked by researchers or system designers partially due to lack of proper versions of existing simulation tools that can incorporate human attributes into a simulation model. Finch [17] used a deterministic simulation approach to see the impact of the overall system performance of a production line by assigning learning rates to each workstation.and medium-term schedules [13]. This can be done by setting a value of each . i. Nevertheless. the time required to perform a task declines at a decreasing rate as experience with the task increases. Most of the learning theory developed for manufacturing analysis is based on the mechanisms of skill acquisition and the law of practice. The model describes the cycle time (or cost) for a unit of product that decreases as the cumulative volume of outputs decreases as shown in Fig. and it may not be necessary in a manufacturing environment as such an effect of physical and psychological attributes for suitability of a qualified worker can be considered and tested through job interviews or trial. Learning and forgetting are both natural phenomena that directly affect the performance of individual workers. where the reduction in cycle time is the result of the learning process [12].e. The learning curve may be situated at the three levels: the operator level. are summarised in the work by Baines et al. In a walking worker assembly line. the technical system level and the management level [12]. which are assigned and operated by each walking worker. With this approach. a higher complexity of selected manufacturing tasks may degrade worker proficiency for product assembly. as product variety increases. To resolve this issue. quality improvement and cost analysis across a wide variety of products including electronic 140 130 120 110 100 90 0 100 200 300 400 500 Cumulative Output (units) Fig. Figure 3 illustrates a typical behaviour of a learning curve in an assembly process that is carried out by a fitter. 3. In this case study.Int J Adv Manuf Technol (2013) 68:141–148 145 160 3 Modelling human attributes through a learning curve Assembly time per unit (s) 150 As previously discussed. It states that the performance of an individual worker may fluctuate depending on such human attributes as their ability. a ‘human factor capture’ method was proposed and used for examining the performance of individual walking workers through an analysis of a series of learning curves by modelling their operational activities in a learning process based on a combined simulation model which incorporates the effect of a number of human factor variables in terms of cognitive and physical elements as stated previously. [10. McCreery et al. Two managerial variables may affect the learning process model: engineering changes and workforce training [16]. Performance improvement is often measured in terms of cycle time reduction. the task of modelling these human attributes in reality is almost impossible. physiological states and psychological traits. [9].

thus. These simulation results were obtained based on a fiveworking day period per week divided into 15 shifts (i. it also enables the designed system to achieve a relatively even production pace between adjacent walking workers when assembling a product down the line. thereby minimising the blocking rate (or the in-process waiting time) and thus maintaining a higher line output. each worker cannot be starved because they are attached to an assembly and are trained to complete the assembly tasks within an expected cycle time.146 Int J Adv Manuf Technol (2013) 68:141–148 4 Case studies As shown in Fig. three shifts per day and 7 h per shift) with the same number of workers on the line. the utilisation of a worker is defined as the percentage of time this worker has been used for assembly. The performance of a walking worker was also modelled by initially setting a value of an assembly time per unit. As stated previously. Results show an average increase in productivity of 6. it has been re-balanced across all the workstations.3 % using the walking worker approach after the system warm-up period. the original fixed worker engine assembly line has been re-configured by applying walking workers with additional workstations (WSe1–5) incorporated into each of the five manual assembly sections. let us say a maximum assembly time that a walking worker possibly needs at the early stage of assembling a new product. this is because having workstations more than workers on a linear walking worker line can ease the effect of varying unbalance levels.2 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 Number of shifts Fig.4 7. This method enables system designers to evaluate a walking worker’s varying capability in terms of working speed per unit through a learning curve to meet a minimum proficient level of skills acquired from training.6 Output per worker per shift human variable to weight a walking worker’s performance. respectively. we name this amount of time as assembly learning limit (ALL). Table 1 shows an example of the original cycle times (mean Table 1 The original cycle times and the rebalanced cycle times in seconds at different workstations in section 3 Workstations (section 3) Original cycle times (s) Re-balanced cycle times (s) 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 Total cycle time 94 96 99 98 94 96 95 98 97 N/A 867 86 89 87 89 84 88 83 89 83 89 867 time) and the re-balanced cycle times at different workstations in section 3 (WS11–WSe3). Figure 5 shows the 8. 8. The previous research has shown that blocking or starving rates can be significantly reduced by having one more workstations than the number of workers on the line [18].6 FW WW 7.8 7. this cannot be achieved by using the fixed worker approach as the line needs to be fully staffed at all workstations and is inherently unbalanced to some degree. however. Adding an additional workstation into each manual assembly section can also reduce the blocking rate. For this study. which reflects to their working speed in this case study. The work content in each section still remains the same.2 8 7. This minimises the loss of labour efficiency and maximises individual labour utilisation. 3) at the beginning of a learning process. 4 Comparison between fixed and walking worker lines (output per worker per shift) . Within the re-configured walking worker line. This value of processing time then declines during a learning process for this selected walking worker until it reaches a steady state after producing a certain number of units of this product by repetitively performing the same amount of assembly tasks for making a unit of this product.e. 4. Apparently.1 Case study I Both the original fixed worker engine assembly line and the re-configured walking worker engine assembly line were modelled in order to compare them with simulation results. assuming that a walking worker has an initial processing time of 150 s per unit (shown in Fig. thereby reducing idle time for each individual. Figure 4 shows a comparison of the output per worker per shift between the original fixed worker line and the reconfigured walking worker line. For instance. The utilisation of each worker during production is an important measure that reflects the system performance. 1.4 8.

Order: Random WW 95 90 85 80 180 160 140 120 100 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 Number of shifts 80 0 Fig. Each learning curve describes a reduction in the total assembly time for repeatedly producing the same type of a unit by a walking worker from start to end until this time reaches a stable state.L. i. again.e. By comparison. A comparison between the original design using fixed workers and the re-design using walking workers is presented in the paper. 7 The behaviour of the learning curve for each walking worker with higher system variation conducted by the simulation model with a lower system variation. and it does . respectively.2 Case study II The following experimental results were conducted through simulation to analyse the behaviour of each learning curve during a production process performed by a walking worker as shown in Figs. 6 were 1000 Assembly time per unit (s) A. it can be seen that the walking worker 2 (WW2) needs the least number of cumulative units (47 units) that this walking worker produced before reaching a stable state (600 s per unit) in processing time. it indicates that using the walking worker method has better performance in terms of labour utilisation compared to the result of using the fixed worker method.L.e. The biggest advantage of this walking worker design approach is that this change will not actually affect the overall layout of the existing production line. By observing the simulation results shown in Fig. 7 were conducted by the simulation model with a higher system variation. By observing the simulation results shown in Fig. 6 The behaviour of the learning curve for each walking worker with lower system variation The first part of this paper reports a feasibility study of a semi-automated automotive engine assembly line that is reconfigured by incorporating walking workers into the five manual assembly sections. In other words. 6 and 7. i. 5 Summaries 900 800 700 600 500 0 20 40 60 80 100 120 Cumulative Output (Units) Fig. 5 Comparison between fixed and walking worker lines (labour utilisation) simulation result of labour utilisation as a function of the time (in terms of shifts) for both lines. whereas the walking worker 3 (WW3) needs the greatest number of cumulative units (98 units) to achieve such a stable state in processing time. 4. the experimental results shown in Fig. which is generated by setting an initial value of each human variable stored in the Excel worksheet. 7. Each walking worker performs the same task of assembly operations with varying performance. 6.Int J Adv Manuf Technol (2013) 68:141–148 FW A.L. it demonstrates that a walking worker needs the number of cumulative units in a range between 260 and 570 units in order to reach a stable state of 100 s per unit (in this case. the ALL was set randomly). the line was set to be imbalanced with the highest effect of bottlenecks along the line in this case study. The experimental results shown in Fig. compared to that of cumulative units in a range between 350 and 510 units to reach the same stable state (in this case. the ALL was set from high to low).L. the line was set to be relatively balanced with a least effect of bottlenecks. The research concludes that there are some advantages of using walking workers over the conventional method of using fixed workers. the assembly time each walking worker needs for completing a unit gradually declines over the accumulative number of completed units that increases. Order: High-Low 200 Assembly time per unit (s) Labour utilisation (%) 100 147 WW1 WW4 WW2 WW5 WW3 WW6 100 200 300 400 500 600 700 Cumulative Output (Units) Fig.

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