Ford Motor Company credits digital employees Jack and Jill with helping improve the ergonomics and efficiency of its assembly line. These stars of Ford’s virtual reality program were designed to give the company the ability to predict and eliminate on-the-job injuries for assembly operators and modify designs and processes before resources have been committed.
Ford uses human modeling software and advanced motion capture technology, commonly used in animated movies and digital games, to design jobs that are less physically stressful on workers.
Allison Stephens, Ford ergonomics technical specialist with Vehicle Operations Manufacturing Engineering, explained in a company press release that the benefits are fewer injuries, lower cost of tooling changes, higher quality and faster time to market. “We’re seeing improvement in every one of those metrics, and our virtual technology is a factor.”
In a virtual assembly plant, an engineer wearing a digitized harness, gloves and head gear installs a virtual center console exactly as a plant operator would. The engineer’s size and movements are captured and loaded into a computer program, redrawn as a digital employee and displayed on a large screen.
The human modeling software then determines the ergonomic and quality impact on the assembly-line work. Changes can be made quickly and efficiently to the vehicle or the design of the part to avoid potential harm to the real-life operator.
The company explains that it has integrated ergonomic requirements into product design specifications and customer quality checks. “With this technology, our digital employees – Jack and Jill – are helping us predict the ergonomic affect of long-term repetitive motions,” said Stephens. “The impact on health and safety metrics as well as on quality has been tremendous.”
The ergonomic data then passes to the Virtual Build Arena, where the program team – designers, engineers, suppliers and line operators – virtually assemble the vehicle part by part. This happens long before the first physical parts are produced and a prototype vehicle is built. In fact, the virtual build event takes place before Ford and its suppliers install tooling and set up workstations.
As Jack and Jill assemble the vehicle part by part on a wall-sized computer screen during the virtual build phase, the program team scrutinizes the vehicle’s manufacturing feasibility. They assess how well the parts go together in the assigned sequence and at the specific plant where the vehicle is to be produced.
Ford attributes cost-savings and improved quality to the virtual build program. Ford says that the Ford Flex and Lincoln MKS, both launching in the Summer, reached the prototype build stage with 80 percent fewer manufacturing feasibility issues.