Ford Shows Us How To Create Virtual Cars To Gain Virtual Market Share

Today I took a trip over to Ford's Manufacturing Development Center in Dearborn to check out the latest and greatest in building imaginary things. The amusing twist here is that one of the first jobs I got while in college was with Ford's Advanced Manufacturing Group at the Dearborn Engine and Fuel Tank Plant in the Rouge. One of my assignments was to mock up a planned manufacturing line with carboard boxes and lift tables — oh how far things have come. Using a bevy of software suites and quite a bit of industrial knowhow, Ford can now simulate the entire assembly of a car before the first mold has been cast.

The folks at the MDC were all too pleased to show off some of the toys they use on a daily basis to evaluate the impact of design on the assembly process and the worker in the plant. We were introduced to Allison Stephens, a Ford ergonomics technical specialist, and her $200k Virtual Ergonomics Lab. Outfitted with the latest in motion capture goodies, the lab is used to simulate installation of parts, the impact the process has on the human body and the work flow. Glenn Harrington was the brave fellow who acted as the "human" in the full body motion study and showed us just how things were done. After the initial demo, it was time for us to strap on the VR helmet and gloves. The VR helmet acts as a way to put imaginary parts in the virtual build book together with the real world motions and parts in hand. Plus it's pretty cool. This is a long way from cardboard boxes. After a brief and awkward demo, it was on to the impressive sounding "Virtual Manufacturing Assembly Arena."

No, there were no bullfights and no gladiators, but there were three giant screens with matching projectors, and a row of PCs running the show. Dan Hettle is the man with plan here, Chief Engineer for Vehicle Operations, he works with different advanced engineering teams to make sure the designs can be assembled and don't cause worker strain. In this environment, Ford engineers can "build" the car virtually on a macro level. The data is pulled from supplier CAD files for the equipment and the Ford parts system for parts to simulate the virtual assembly line.Trouble spots are identified in the process and engineering teams are able to communicate through Netmeeting and over speaker phone about possible solutions. If a problem is human related, or sufficiently complex, it's sent down to the ergo lab for a deep dive.

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The Ford Flex was the first to go through the complete process and as a result is expected to have much better initial quality scores than some products from the past. We were pretty happy to get in there an check out the gadgets, and doubly happy we didn't break anything. On a serious note though, that "Virtual Manufacturing Arena" reminds me of so many design reviews where sleep nearly overtook me that I almost felt a little panicky.

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