3D Meets Safety at Los Alamos National Laboratory

More than 50 percent reported discomfort, tingling, or pain if they had performed glovebox work for more than 10 years, do repetitive tasks as a primary work task, and/or work more than four hours per day in the gloveboxes.

When people think of 3D technology, the first things that often come to mind are movies, games, and television. The use of 3D technology today, however, extends far beyond the entertainment industry. Companies are deploying 3D simulation as a powerful tool for ensuring employee safety and reducing worker injuries.

Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), one of the largest science and technology institutions in the world, is one such example. Working mostly for the U.S. Department of Energy, scientists and engineers at LANL conduct multidisciplinary research in fields such as national security, space exploration, renewable energy, medicine, nanotechnology, and supercomputing. Gloveboxes are often used to support work in such fields. These are not the type of gloveboxes in your car, but the type that are used to handle radioactive material, infectious diseases, pharmaceuticals, or other potentially hazardous materials in a controlled environment.

LANL happens to be one of the most prolific users of nuclear gloveboxes. The laboratory houses about 800 gloveboxes for performing a variety of tasks. Each takes approximately six months to one year to manufacture, and can have a projected cost of up to $1 million, including fabrication, inspection, and installation. The gloveboxes are operated by about 450 different glovebox workers employed by LANL.

Hidden Ergonomic Dangers
Contrary to what people unfamiliar with gloveboxes may think, workers who use them are at risk for injuries. Working with gloveboxes can involve lifting heavy objects, working in unnatural postures, and performing restricted or repetitive motions that are ergonomic injury risks.

More than 50 percent of the glovebox workers at LANL stated through a recent survey that they have symptoms of discomfort, tingling, or pain if they had performed glovebox work for more than 10 years, do repetitive tasks as a primary work task, and/or work more than 4 hours per day in the gloveboxes. Those symptoms often occur in the thumbs, wrists, elbows and forearms, neck, and upper back or lower back and are especially prevalent in the shoulders and elbows. The problems seen are indeed a cumulative trauma disorder occurring due to the ergonomic risk factors of duration, frequency, and longevity. Preventing ergonomic injury has been an ongoing challenge for organizations such as LANL. Until recently, designing and manufacturing gloveboxes has been done through trial and error by building labor-intensive physical prototypes. Considering the amount of work that goes into constructing a prototype that fulfills its intended use, there is little time to consider ergonomic factors. Testing these designs traditionally consists of time-consuming and resource-heavy construction of wooden models, followed by a series of cumbersome physical trials.

Ergonomic injuries often require costly occupational, physical therapy, or even surgery. LANL is taking a proactive approach to identify potential ergonomic problems in the glovebox development process. This began with finding a way to analyze the ergonomics of existing and proposed gloveboxes in order to minimize technician injuries and to optimize the processes within the gloveboxes.

The solution LANL discovered is a new system for assessing glovebox designs using 3D software. The company selected 3DS DELMIA's digital human modeling applications for the task and began working to influence designs and test ergonomic factors early in the glovebox design process using complex virtual simulations. LANL was able to model the gloveboxes themselves, the machines or materials inside of them, other peripheral objects such as stepstools or ladders used to access higher portions of gloveboxes, and, most importantly, digital mannequins of the technicians who would work on the gloveboxes.

Designing and Testing Safety in a Virtual Environment
3D simulation software today is dramatically more advanced than simulation software of just a few years ago. Users are able to create virtual models that accurately represent both genders and that factor in human measurements, such as height, weight, and reach. These models can be rapidly deployed to any location or scenario within a 3D virtual environment to simulate tasks that would be performed by a real person – revealing everything from what they would see to how their bodies likely would react.

This high degree of accuracy allows users to analyze and predict human strength, safety, and performance in an immense variety of scenarios at a fraction of the time and cost it would take to perform physical trials.

Applying this type of software to its own situation, LANL is able to model glovebox operators and the environments where they work with a high degree of precision, but at a fraction of the time and cost typically required for assembling and assessing the prototype. They create a more sustainable practice by running their tests to collect ergonomic and safety data without producing the waste typically generated by constructing physical prototypes. LANL also is able to assess designs rapidly and project how variations to the environment will affect ergonomics.

For example, what will happen if the object inside the glovebox is heavier? What if the glovebox operator is shorter? What if the technician is required to use a step ladder? This enhanced design evaluation facilitated by 3D software enables LANL to assess these "what if" situations quickly and more sustainably, and then to adapt designs accordingly.

"The sheer number of variables to consider –- from the size of the technician to the material within the glovebox –- makes designing an ergonomic model a huge challenge," said Starr Johnson, an engineering technologist with the Process Modeling & Analysis Group at LANL. "3D design software gave us the answer we were looking for. It enables us to consider a wide range of factors and run thousands of tests in a safe, cost-effective environment and obtain real, actionable results."

In addition to the time, cost and materials savings, designing and testing gloveboxes in a virtual environment returns another critically important benefit: It dramatically lowers the risk of injuries to technicians using the new designs. During the design process, glovebox operators are able to experience the designs in immersive virtual environments and provide feedback before any actual manufacturing begins. Throughout the process, designers and end-users maintain open lines of communication in order to deliver the best and safest design. By first using virtual mannequins and then asking workers to review the near-final product, it's a fairly quick process for everyone involved.

Analyzing designs in the virtual environment certainly makes it easier for glovebox designers to modify models and make them more ergonomically sound, but not all tasks are feasible without the risk of injury. 3D simulations not only reveal the most ergonomic glovebox designs, but also inform designers when an installation is simply ergonomically infeasible. When looking at one complex installation within a glovebox, LANL actually ended up forgoing its original design plans after learning the installation wouldn’t be safe. Lab officials were able to gather this invaluable information while saving time, money, and energy and without putting any technician in harm's way.

The Future of 3D and Safety
As businesses push to innovate faster and more cheaply in order to keep up in today's competitive environment, it's vital to ensure the safety of employees is not lost along the way. We're seeing companies across a variety of industries turn to 3D lifelike human simulation in order to do just that.

LANL deploys 3D simulation to ensure its gloveboxes are safe and ergonomically sound. NASA's Kennedy Space Center simulates ground operations for America's astronaut launch facilities to ensure teams and equipment are transported safely throughout their sites. Jaguar Land Rover creates some of the world's most iconic vehicles and ensures they're constructed to protect passengers by supplementing physical impact simulations with virtual ones.

3D modeling software enables companies of all kinds to identify problems and find alternative approaches in order to succeed and ensure safety in a fast-paced world. By creating a realistic virtual environment in which to conduct trials, businesses are reducing time to market, cutting costs and waste, improving employee and customer safety, and opening the lines of communication within the enterprise. As companies deploying traditional modeling and design practices fall behind, those that embrace 3D experiences are emerging as more agile and innovative.

Virtual simulations helps companies achieve their goals while ensuring the safety and well-being of employees and customers –- a benefit that is making 3D experiences practically mandatory in today's competitive manufacturing environment.

This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Julie Charland has been involved in the field of ergonomics since 1994. Her master’s degree in Kinanthropology (ergonomics/biomechanics) allowed her to specialize in applied research in ergonomics. Her ergonomics and biomechanics knowledge brought her to the Dassault Systèmes Virtual Ergonomics Solution Team in 1999, where she started as an aerospace account manager and now manages the WW Industry Solutions & Consulting team for Virtual Ergonomics. Dassault Systèmes, the 3DEXPERIENCE Company, provides business and people with virtual universes to imagine sustainable innovations. Its world-leading solutions transform the way products are designed, produced, and supported. The group brings value to more than 150,000 customers in more than 80 countries. For more information, visit www.3ds.com.

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