Mhlnews 518 Competeergonomicsa

Keep Work at Arm's Length

Oct. 13, 2011
Rolling carts and milk crates were a low-tech and low effect way to position work. A more effective solution came out of the dentist's office.

Any manual assembly operation should be both lean and ergonomic. One of the most effective approaches is to keep at arm’s length the equipment necessary to set up and run a job. Dectron, a small privately owned manufacturer of articulating arms, recognizes that such positioning eliminates footsteps and the need for an employee to search for a missing tool or micrometer while their machine sits idle. However, it didn’t always practice what it produced.

Before this company’s current owners took the helm in August 2009, it was operated as a combination job/production shop, with the production emphasis being on producing the Dectron line of articulating arms. Although the owner believed feverishly in quality, he had a clear disregard for continuous improvement under his own roof. Consequently, the facility we took over was dirty, cluttered, disorganized and out of date.

Inventory was being managed with paper and pencil, computer software was in some cases 15 to 20 years old, decommissioned manual machines cluttered the shop floor, piles of tooling added to the clutter, and 20-year-old files lined the shelves.

When we bought Dectron we saw it as a great opportunity to not only make this company more efficient, but to make it a showcase of its own products. By doing so we realized the value of our arms within the first year of our ownership. That happened because we updated the rather unconventional and unattractive method used before. Our goal was to generate the table space required to stage critical tools and instruments close at hand, and we knew that rolling carts and stacking milk crates around machining centers were not the ways to go.

The Problem

For starters, bulky carts and crates take up excess space in exchange for minimal work surface. Baskets stacked upside down yield roughly a 1’ x 1 1/2’ surface on which to stage items.

With that small amount of space, it won’t be long before you’re building a second stack. Today’s best practices rely heavily on ergonomics, and baskets and carts are anything but. Baskets and carts do not adjust to varying heights of employees and require constant bending, lifting and pushing to maneuver both during and after a job. The time exhausted by moving baskets and carts to put a new bar in a bar feeder adds up quickly throughout the day, especially if you’re operating multiple turning centers.

Benches were not an option. They would only exacerbate the problem by absorbing more space and offering less maneuverability than the existing solution. Benches typically promote disorganization and clutter as well.

The Solution

Our new approach reflects various non-manufacturing approaches—including those applied in a dentist’s office.

It’s common practice for dentists to use trays mounted on articulating arms to position their instruments at arm’s reach upon sitting down next to a patient. The versatility of an arm allows a dentist or doctor to easily position it in a variety of places, including out of the way when not in use.

To mimic this concept, Dectron removed baskets and carts and mounted articulating arms with trays to CNC machines, floor mounted poles, and table tops around its facility. A simple solution borrowed from an irrelevant field had seemingly solved its ergonomic problems.

The Result

Implementing the articulating arms allowed Dectron to retain the tool positioning benefits of the carts and trays while eliminating the detriments that had plagued its previous solution. Stackable trays on arm systems doubled and tripled the amount of available work surface in a fraction of the space required by carts and baskets. Much like a city, when you want to save space you build up, not out. The streamlined design of arms combined with a smaller foot print virtually eliminated the appearance of a cluttered work station prevalent with the prior solution and the ergonomic design was welcomed by the workers. Not only were arms easily adjustable to the varying heights of employees, but they were easily swung out of the way or re-positioned with no bending or lifting.


Although more time is required to gauge the full effect and absolute cost savings associated with implementing the arms, early estimates point to a 25% reduction in footsteps taken to complete a job and up to a 15-minute reduction in machine setup time. Employees report feeling less strain and fatigue throughout the day, equating to a more productive workforce while also reducing the risk of job-related injuries.

All benefits combined, Dectron believes ROI was achieved in as little as two months and will realize savings in the thousands of dollars annually. Dectron is currently looking to implement more arm systems with shadow boards and dedicated tooling to further increase its ergonomics and lean objectives.

Brian Shively, senior advanced manufacturing engineer responsible for implementing these arms into the facilities of Johnson Controls, says these benefits extend beyond the workplace.

“Having less stressed, tired, sore employees directly leads to better quality, higher productivity and happier people when they leave from work,” he says. “If people can go home happier and less sore, tired and frustrated, then their home lives can be better, they can sleep better, and ultimately it makes it easier for them to come back to work day after day.”

Chase Strohmaier is manager at Dectron Articulating Arm Systems (

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