Ford's Virtual Tools Help Reduce Ergo Injuries

April 16, 2008
Virtual manufacturing technologies at Ford Motor Co. help boost the automaker's assembly line efficiency and eliminate on-the-job injuries, the company said. Two digital employees, Jack and Jill, help Ford predict the effect of long-term repetitive motions while ensuring part-by-part manufacturing feasibility.

Ford employed an advanced motion capture technology – commonly used in animated movies and digital games – with human modeling software to design jobs that are less physically stressful for workers.

Allison Stephens, Ford ergonomics technical specialist with Vehicle Operations Manufacturing Engineering, said the virtual technology has been a factor in reducing on-the-job injuries and lowering the cost of tool changes. Other benefits include higher quality and faster time to market, she said.

“We’re seeing improvement in every one of those metrics, and our virtual technology is a factor,” she said.

Jack and Jill Assess Ergonomic Impact

Stephens demonstrated the technology in a virtual assembly plant. An engineer wearing a digitized harness, gloves, and headgear installed a virtual center console just as a plant operator would. A computer program captured the engineer's size and movements and displayed a digital Jack on a large screen.

The human modeling software then determines the ergonomic and quality impact on the assembly-line work. Changes to the vehicle or part design can be made quickly and efficiently to avoid adverse impact.

According to the company, Ford 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."

Quality Improvement

The ergonomic data is then handed off to the Virtual Build Arena, where the program team, including designers, engineers, suppliers and line operators, virtually assemble the vehicle. In this virtual build process, 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. For example, they may assess how well the parts go together in the assigned sequence.

“The impact on cost-savings and quality improvement is significant,” said Cheryl Bruins-Rozier, Virtual Build manager.

The approach helped Ford’s quality improve 11 percent last year in the United States versus the 2 percent industry average, according to a 2007 Global Quality Research System study conducted by RDA Group for Ford.

Bruins-Rozier said the technology contributed to high quality early builds of the Ford Flex and Lincoln MKS, which will be launched this summer. In each case, the vehicle reached the prototype build stage with 80 percent fewer manufacturing feasibility issues.

“The goal of our virtual manufacturing tools is to drive compatibility between the product design and the assembly plant process,” explained Dan Hettel, chief engineer of vehicle operations. “We validate each assembly process virtually to ensure that it can be completed with quality. The quality results of our recent launches show that the virtual process is working.”

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