An ergonomics metamorphosis at Gulfstream

Via enthusiasm, simple tools and educating the workforce, jet-maker saves time and money

Gulfstream builds its G650 top-of-the-line business jet in Savannah, Georgia.

By Michael Hughes

Salvation for Kyle Pihlstrom's body came via an equipment retailer and an industrial supply company. The assembly overhaul mechanic for Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. used to struggle for two hours holding a 50-pound landing gear with one hand while using a blast hose to peel off anti-corrosion paint so the wheels could be inspected. At the end of the day, his back and shoulders burned.

After many a discussion, Gulfstream's Appleton, Wisconsin, repair and overhaul shop devised one of hundreds of ergonomic interventions that have taken place in the last few years: modifying a motorcycle wheel stand from Harbor Freight, pairing it with a Lazy Susan from McMaster-Carr and using the contraption to secure the wheel while Pihlstrom works.

"There's no more strain on your upper body or back," he said. "You could literally with two fingers turn the wheels, rotate them or turn them around the other way."

Gulfstream’s Davana Pilczuk (left) uses masking tape to
demonstrate the power zone, the area from shoulders to
midthigh where workers are strongest and least likely
to get injured. Simple tools like masking tape teach
ergonomics effectively and inexpensively at the business
jet manufacturer.Aerospace manufacturing can be tedious, time-consuming and repetitive work – the kind that grinds down muscles and minds. The business jet manufacturer's ergonomics program was at zero when Davana Pilczuk was hired as an ergonomist in 2008.

As her program grew more established, initiatives went from a handful to more than 200 in 2011, more than 300 in 2013 and more than 600 in 2015. The ergonomics program now covers 90 percent of Gulfstream's employees worldwide and saves tens of thousands of labor hours each year, not to mention making life easier for those, like Pihlstrom, who serve on the shop floor.

Pilczuk's initial goal was simple. Get people to love ergonomics, have fun, hook a few key players and the rest would follow.

"When you're an outsider or a newbie, which I was both, you have to find people who already have credibility established within the organization," said Pilczuk, now Gulfstream's corporate ergonomics manager. "Once they understand you, they vouch for you, and more importantly they vouch for your message."

In time, she found natural influencers across the business, schooled them on basic ergonomic concepts and let them run free and sell the message. She added to the influence with articles, videos and a best practice manual so workers could find solutions easily.

To illustrate, Pilczuk and company star in short, two-minute ergo YouTube videos that explain things ranging from the power zone (the area from shoulders to midthigh where you're strongest); how to move the work, worker or workstation so you're working in the power zone (where you're least likely to be injured or damage the product); or how to use handles to make that pesky tool fit your hand better.

She assembled ergo councils full of volunteers who disperse health and safety knowledge throughout the company, helping it course through the company like oxygen through blood vessels. Pilczuk encouraged colleagues to target low-hanging fruit: quick wins with short ROIs that don't require engineering redesign and gobs of cash – things like teaching them to turn discards into gold.

Scrap leather wrapped around metal bucking bars prevents damage to expensive products. Scrap two-by-fours hold parts. Scrap carpet and cardboard come together for footrests. All told, employee ideas have kept thousands of pounds of waste from reaching the landfill. Curtailing those wastes, combined with the ergonomic interventions, saves the company money and labor.

Kyle Pihlstrom (left) and Dan Cuff display the modified motorcycle wheel stand
paired with a Lazy Susan used to stabilize 50-pound landing gears for paint removal operations.Gulfstream holds an internal ergonomics competition each year. The 2016 edition featured 45 projects, a small portion of the company's overall ergo effort. But that sliver, according to Gulfstream, accounted for more than 5,000 labor hours saved per year.

Ergo council team members get mentoring and opportunities beyond the workplace, showcasing their improvements at GOErgo's Applied Ergonomics Conference, where Gulfstream teams have won coveted Ergo Cups and Ergo Excellence awards and Pilczuk was named GOErgo's Creativeness in Ergonomics Practitioner of the Year for 2012.

During an October walk through the G650 initial phase building in Savannah, Georgia, technicians, mechanics and industrial engineers pointed out ergo project after ergo project. They talked about how the program has made their jobs easier, how their bodies are less worn out and their minds less stressed, and how they can accomplish more work, safely, in a shorter period of time. They let visitors know that Pilczuk has made learning and ergo fun.

3-D printing helps convert scribblings into useful tools

The magic of 3-D printing can transform your napkin drawing into a tool to help you build airplanes more effectively, efficiently and safely.

The 3-D printing lab at Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. printed more than 7,000 parts in 2016, hundreds of those for the aircraft manufacturer's ergonomics program, said Corporate Communications Officer Emily Montjoy Belford. Industrial engineer Megan Mullininx, who has worked in the test labs department for five years, said the lab serves as a liaison between the person with the idea and the 3-D printer.

"We usually will act as advisors for the machine, the material and offer any design inputs that we need to help them get to a really fabulous solution," Mullininx said.

The lab has been marketing its services for several years with the aim of letting the entire company know the tool is available.

Industrial engineer Megan Mullininx displays some of the hundreds of ergonomic aids her test labs division 3-D-printed for Gulfstream mechanics and technicians.

"And through that we have met all-stars who have really run away with the idea, who are super creative," she said. "It is right in their wheelhouse … like Chris Knieriem, like Jerry Trenary and like so many others."

In fact, one person has submitted more than 280 parts, she said. Note that printing 10 copies of a tool counts as 10, not one.

Improving technology has helped. Although 3-D printing has been around for decades, more robust materials allow for better tools. ABS plastics are quite durable, Mullininx said. And these days Gulfstream has a machine that can print metal parts, which can be used for a wide variety of applications and has sparked a lot of imagination in the workforce.

Mullininx and other Gulfstream IEs maintain that some of the best ideas come from the technicians and mechanics who have created their own shop aids on the floor. The 3-D lab and ergo council members take the initial idea and troubleshoot the issue to customize the final tool to solve the problem at hand. Sometimes it takes a few iterations to get it just right or improve the product even more.

"And usually at the end of the day it's just such a huge improvement over what they were doing," Mullininx said. "They're really excited to see that their idea actually worked and that their idea for that improvement had such a great benefit to them."

As the program has grown, demand has increased to where the requests outnumber the supply of Pilczuk's now threeperson ergo team, said Lee Tait, Gulfstream's vice president of quality.

"Her strategy of training these folks and then having them be subject matter experts as well has worked out well," Tait said. "It's just amazing to me the creativity that people have if you turn them loose a little bit and say ‘what do you think' instead of telling them … and for practically no money."

In turn, the workers become a resource within their departments, giving their cohorts synergistic opportunities to learn and benefit from many of Gulfstream's fairly simple ergo solutions.

This focus on growing others has resulted in about 200 Gulfstream employees volunteering for 20 ergo councils, 14 at the Savannah headquarters and six at other sites, said Gulfstream ergonomics consultant Kevin Barefield.

These councils help expand the reach of Pilczuk and her team: Barefield and Claudia Sandez. Each council typically is led by a mechanic or engineer who is actively mentored by the corporate ergonomics department, which gives general direction and helps leads decide what initiatives to implement, Barefield said.

"The ergo councils are the ones doing the day-to-day problem identification/solutions," Barefield said. "In other words, they work the projects; corporate ergo guides the program."

Industrial engineer Megan Mullininx's interest in human factors led her to volunteer for an ergo council. In addition to the meetings, where she trains the team and they discuss potential projects, she spends time one on one helping team members in her test labs department identify and solve issues.

"At this point I try to encourage them to do their own thing because test labs is such a huge organization and each member is representing pretty large groups," Mullininx said.

The newly trained ergo team members teach others. And as people rotate on and off the councils, the training goes back with them to their part of the test labs department, a phenomenon repeated department after department and plant site after plant site, replicating ergo knowledge throughout the organization.

As Kevin Hendrix, a cabinet maker senior, said: "You get taught, and then you teach. You transfer that knowledge. We were learning as we were teaching."

Just as importantly, the ergonomics department engages the entire workforce from the technician to the C-suite. Pilczuk's presentations often include executive management. And at Gulfstream, it's not uncommon to see a mechanic briefing a senior vice president on the shop floor. That's because upper management and corporate ergo view workers as customers, listening to their issues, said operations engineer Mark Fuller.

"It's really important that you go to their floor and see what's happening because some of the stuff that you see might not be their problem, and some of their sticking points that you don't [see] are really critical for making their job better," he said.

Hendrix called such engagement and recognition critical. An ergo true believer, he admitted to being a little negative and "old school" when Pilczuk and company ramped up the ergo program in his department.

The department already encouraged employees to submit ideas. But feedback increased, as every idea generator heard back from somebody who let them know whether their notions warranted pursuit. Workable suggestions went up on the factory wall, and staff members would walk by, look at the poster, recognize their idea and say, "Oh, that's me," Hendrix said.

As Hendrix and others realized the improvement opportunities inherent in aerospace work, they applied the ergonomic lessons. The crew became healthier, and shop culture changed to one where people actually think more about what they're doing, he said.

Over the past few years, formerly skeptical technicians have bought into the program, and numerous conversations have gone like this:
Hendrix: "Some of the older guys were like ‘No, no, no.' Then the next thing I know I say, ‘What are you doing right there?'"
Co-worker: "Well, I wanted to elevate that a little bit so it didn't make my back hurt so bad."
Hendrix: "And I'd say, ‘See, you just did an ergo.'"
Co-worker: "Well, I guess I did, didn't I?"

One worker with arthritic hands had trouble using a standard router. To change a bit, you have to hold the router, depress a button with a thumb and use a wrench to loosen a nut. The math of two arthritic hands aiming to accomplish three different operations doesn't work. So, Hendrix recalled, the co-worker came up with a router cradle made from plywood.

Another worker used to spend the entire shift carrying 150-pound bulkheads from one part of the shop to another. So he grabbed a ubiquitous little gray cart, put some two-byfours and sides on it, and now guides the bulkhead down the aisle with one hand.

"So we took that cart and said, ‘Let's build some of them down at the finish shop and see what happens,'" Hendrix said. "You can't find them. People started stealing them. I'm not kidding; we couldn't make them fast enough."

Operations manager Jonathan Edwards (left) and industrial engineer Chris Knieriem show off a cart Gulfstream employees devised to help bring the work to the workers.Other projects are larger and involve teams, like the current plan to remodify engine scaffolding. Such massive changes could take anywhere from one to six months, said industrial engineer Chris Knieriem. Part of the scaffolding project involves bringing the work to the worker in the form of redesigning a support area to hold a toolbox.

"It just makes more sense," Knieriem said. "We actually had our continuous improvement facilitator Mike Peacock do a spaghetti diagram of the guys walking all around and wasted motion and all that. So that helped justify the design change."

A less-intensive redesign involved a manifold for a cheek on the plane's cockpit floor. Technicians spend eight to 10 hours a day in the sweltering cockpit running electronic checks, Knieriem said. The enclosed space has no air conditioning, and sweating the workforce to death is generally not a good idea.

Instead of blowing air in with a fan, Knieriem collaborated with the mechanics to design a hose-and-axial-fan system to draw air out.

"It drops the temperature about 10 degrees in the cockpit, which is what they needed to get back to normal, a comfortable condition … not everything ergo is stressing the hands and feet," Knieriem said.

In fact, one – a $2 part that stabilizes an $1,800 oxygen monitor – involved the human respiratory system.

Employees have a lot to accomplish when working inside a Gulfstream plane's cramped wings, which contain mineral oil. Air quality is critical to breathing. But when the monitor tips over, mineral oil or any other fluid could flow into one of the instrument's five orifices, killing its ability to sense oxygen, Knieriem said. Environmental health and safety workers were scrapping out one or two of the expensive monitors each month, so they asked Knieriem for help.

The monitor is top heavy, with the weight at the top and the sensors on the bottom. It took about five or six tries, but they 3-D-printed a base that inverts the tool, keeping it stable.

Multiple iterations are the norm, Fuller said. Typically, 75 percent of your ideas are what Fuller termed "learning opportunities." The first proof of concept might be made out of cardboard. Engineers and ergonomists also play with tape, foam, Play-Doh and scraps. They look to nature and other people's ideas – a handle from one application might fit another.

"Once you get to the fourth iteration you've really ruled out a lot of your other issues," Fuller said. "And you've got this beautiful product."

Data also helps. Pilczuk gives engineers the stats to allow them to target a design for, say, a woman's hand or the 95th percentile for a male hand so it's the right diameter, Fuller said.

The data comes from software, Pilczuk said. For example, eTools can help examine a situation and determine where the risk is: Is it the amount of grip force, the number of repetitions or the risk of sitting or standing in one position for a long time?

Another program, DF Ergo, or design for ergonomics, can help design a tool or a fixture so it fits a specific demographic. It accounts for anthropometry, also known as body measurements, such as grip strength, reaches and height clearances.

But all the data, design and engineering in the world won't help without good ideas. And the stats, where 90 percent of ergo problems are solved by employees, show how Gulfstream's program flows from the bottom up, not the top down.

Gulfstream operations engineer Mark Fuller (right) works with a technician on a tool that eases the strain on employees who push 100 metal inserts a day through aircraft floorboards.Take metal floorboard inserts. Technicians put glue on the inserts and used about 20 pounds of force to push them through the floorboard. (Screws are inserted later.) About 100 inserts a day makes for a tired thumb. One technician wrapped tape around a piece of metal, which allowed him to use his palm and go from a pinch grip to a power grip, Fuller said. Engineers took the idea into their 3-D modeling software and gave him a new tool.

"So from hurting my thumb to a tape ball on a piece of metal to a final product was about two days," Fuller said, grinning.

The continuous improvement didn't stop there. The technician noted that the tool design let sealant get on his hands, so he asked if the engineers could shave down the handle. In the end, the e-tool reduction went from eight to two, Fuller said.

"At the end of the day, the technician was happy because his hands were not hurting," Fuller said. "They're able to do more inserts. They were involved in the process, and we're producing higher quality parts."

That's music to quality VP Tait's ears. The ability to work without straining your body helps you work efficiently and effectively with fewer opportunities for rework and errors – all going to the quality of the product. Tait called preventing such problems a win-win for the workforce and the employer.

Lee Tait is Gulfstream’s vice president of quality."In the quality world, we're very focused on prevention. It's nowhere near as exciting as remediation, but," she paused for a smile, "I like less drama."

It's also music for the bottom line.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, musculoskeletal disorders accounted for 33 percent of all worker injury and illness cases in 2013. The Ohio State University's Spine Research Institute cites one study showing ergonomics initiatives that have saved a company more than $500,000 in rejection costs. The Washington State Department of Labor & Industries came up with 60 pages of case studies detailing ergonomics interventions and their benefits.

A 2013 study by Raymond Fabius and R. Dixon Thayer in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine considered the links between workforce health and safety and the corporate bottom line. Companies that nurtured a culture of health, measured by those who earned the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine's Corporate Health Achievement Award, outperformed the S&P 500 between 1999 and 2012.

While Fabius' and Thayer's sample size was admittedly small, the data comports with Gulfstream's experience. Tait said companies that get it understand that yes, they are in business to make money, but your bottom line comes from acknowledging that people are your most important resource.

"They are the ones who make your product. They represent your product. They interface with your customers," she said. "And if your people aren't safe and if your people aren't happy, then you are suboptimizing your ability to create a good product."

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