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Ford Incorporates Robotics into Quality Control and Plant Ergonomics
Laser inspection equipment and state-of-the-art avatars are aimed at upgrading the company’s manufacturing facilities.
By Robotics Trends Staff - Filed Jun 03, 2011

A motion capture suit used to create "virtual worker" avatars that will enable Ford to design ergonomic vehicle assembly facilities around the world. (Credit: Ford)

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Ford motor company recently announced it had “earmarked $100 million to install robotic plant laser inspection technology in its assembly plants, hoping to achieve a more precise component fit for its vehicles in order to reduce wind noise,” according to the American Machinist.

Additionally, the company said that as it increases its presence in Asia, Africa and other markets, it will use so-called digital employees or avatars for ergonomic assessments. These avatars will use Hollywood animation technology to work on virtual assembly lines, to help reduce the physical stress of jobs and improve quality.

The multinational avatar is based on Ford’s North American virtual workers, Jack and Jill, and now reflects the sizes and shapes of workers at assembly plants across the globe.

The global digital manikin’s first overseas assignments are for new products planned for new assembly plants in the United States, China, Germany, South Africa, and Thailand.

"We combine Hollywood’s motion-capture technology with human modeling software in our Detroit labs" with the goal of designing jobs in Asia and elsewhere in the world that are less physically stressful on workers, said Allison Stephens, Ford ergonomics specialist with Vehicle Operations Manufacturing Engineering. “We adjusted the sizes of our Jack and Jill models to reflect the populations at our global plants.”

The new avatar was created using size and shape population data gathered from Ford assembly plants across the globe. By customizing these data, Ford researchers have created a manikin used in ergonomic assessments that employ motion-capture technology, the same type of technology that mesmerizes filmgoers and video game players. Motion capture is a technology that digitally captures movement, making nonhuman characters appear more lifelike.

Jack and Jill are examples of the versatility of digital design. As part of Ford’s product development, the ergonomic data they provide are handed off to the virtual build arena, where a program team – designers, engineers, suppliers and line operators – assembles a vehicle part by part, virtually. This happens long before the first physical parts are produced and a prototype vehicle is built. In fact, the virtual build takes place even before Ford and its suppliers install tooling and set up workstations.

In the virtual build event, Jack and Jill assemble the vehicle part by part on a wall-sized computer screen as the program team scrutinizes the vehicle’s manufacturing feasibility; i.e., how well the parts go together in the assigned sequence and at the specific plant where the vehicle is to be produced.

The standardized manikins can be customized to the regional Ford population that is building a specific vehicle.

Ford headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., and Merkenich, Germany, have motion-capture technology labs where new ergonomic studies can be performed as new vehicles are designed. Visualization centers are being developed for Ford Asia Pacific and South America with 3D television sets.

“If we do ergonomic studies for those places, we can simply send them the files and they can watch the studies in 3D; they won’t have to go to the expense of building their own motion-capture labs,” said Stephens.

Soon, the advanced manikins will have a friend, Santos, a computerized avatar now in the testing phase at Ford. Santos was created for the U.S. Department of Defense as part of the Virtual Soldier Research program at the University of Iowa; the military employs Santos to find ways to ease the physical strain on soldiers.

“Santos will be employed on highly demanding jobs that require many muscles to be analyzed at the same time,” said Stephens. “This type of analysis has never been done before.”

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