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How one car company tackled a common work injury using 3-D printing

If you were to travel virtually any street or highway in the greater Los Angeles area, there is a very good chance that you would encounter a significant number of BMWs. While the German automaker is known across Southern California and around the world for making automobiles that are both reliable and luxurious, it is also known for its emphasis on employee safety at its various plants.

To illustrate, consider a recent innovation undertaken at the automaker's Munich-based assembly plant designed to help prevent a common yet debilitating injury among its workforce.

The work injury in question is excess strain on the thumb frequently experienced by assembly line workers tasked with fitting rubber plugs. Here, the rubber plugs are pressed into the new vehicles by the workers and closed for the impending coating of paint, a process that can cause overstretching of the thumb joint over time.

In order to prevent this musculoskeletal injury from keeping workers away from the assembly line, BMW teamed up with researchers at the Technical University of Munich to create custom-fitted "flexible finger cots" for every worker.

These orthotic devices, which are made of thermoplastic polyurethane, allow the workers to freely move their thumbs due to an open design at the thumb joint. However, the device is reinforced on the back, effectively forming a makeshift splint that is designed to spread exertion across the thumb rather than having it concentrated on the thumb joint.

Outside of their custom fit, what makes these ergonomic splints so remarkable is that they are created using 3-D printing, technology that many are predicting is the wave of the future.

This initiative by BMW is noteworthy in that it highlights how a minimal investment of time and resources into worker safety can perhaps pay real dividends further down the line in the form of reduced work injuries and, by extension, fewer work comp claims.

Source: EHS Today, "BMW uses 3-D printing methods to make customized ergonomic PPE for assembly workers," Josh Cable, July 7, 2014

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