Cutting Tool Engineering
September 2012 / Volume 64 / Issue 9

Calling George Jetson!

By Alan Rooks, Editorial Director

I’m sitting in a virtual-reality station that simulates a Ford Fusion. The car interior is visible through my goggles and a camera is tracking my every move via sensors embedded in my driving gloves. Sadly, I’m not able to peel out and elude simulated police cars chasing me, but I can see myself pushing buttons on the dashboard and reaching into the glove compartment.

While this might sound like a really boring video game, it’s actually a tool that allows Ford Motor Co. to revolutionize how it builds prototypes and to improve assembly line operations. Ford invited me to experience the simulator earlier this year at the Chicago Auto Show. Called Programmable Vehicle Model, the simulator pairs motion-capture technology used in animated movies and digital games with human-modeling software that captures a person’s size and movements.

PVM is a good example of how automakers are using game-changing technology to improve the cars they make and how they make them. Another example of exploiting new technology is found in our cover story on page 46, which examines how automakers are using lighter parts and materials to create new drivetrains and bodies that will help them meet tough fuel-economy standards in the future.

The simulator I sampled, developed by Ford’s Environment Lab (FiVE), allows designers and engineers to experience a vehicle before it’s built. The simulator is programmed to represent the dimensions of any Ford interior. Engineers then evaluate design options against several criteria, including reach, headroom, steering wheel angle and visibility of controls and displays. The virtual vehicle realistically simulates the driving experience, including passing cars and pedestrians. Combining the PVM with virtual simulation allows engineers to see how their designs are affected by the physical placement of vehicle components. This reduces the need to build physical prototypes. Designers can evaluate blind spots, reflections and the visibility of objects as if they were sitting inside the vehicle.

But the technology is not just for prototyping. It also allows Ford to track the movements of assembly line workers, which are then redrawn as employee avatars. Ford then designs jobs ergonomically to be less physically stressful. The benefits include fewer injuries, lower cost of tooling changes, higher quality and faster time to market.

“For example, we can use it to see if a worker can put his hands through the opening in the door panel and make electrical connections,” said Allison Stephens, ergonomics technical specialist for Ford, who demonstrated the simulator to me. “It tells us how much stress is on the shoulders and back, and, if there is too much, we redesign the assembly process.”

The simulator also helps Ford redesign vehicle parts. For example, the company has begun putting small antennas on vehicle roofs to capture GPS and other satellite transmissions. “The engineers asked me if it was OK to have workers install the antenna in the middle of the roof,” Stephens said. “Using the simulator, we found that it would be OK for smaller cars, like the Focus, but workers couldn’t reach far enough on larger cars. So the designers shifted the antenna to the back of the vehicle, where we have workers come in from behind and pop it on. We also changed the part design so workers could connect it with one hand.” By using the simulator, Ford has been able to reduce injuries during assembly by up to 80 percent, said Stephens.

Pretty cool stuff. The U.S. will need all this technology to keep its auto industry on track in the future. And that future is likely to include self-driving cars, according to a recent report by market research firm KPMG and the Center for Automotive Research. Self-driving cars would help reduce traffic crashes and the millions of hours wasted in traffic jams, the report said.

According to the KPMG/CAR report, the trend toward self-driving cars will be propelled, in part, by the development of sensor-based and connected-vehicle technologies. (See the cover story of the July/August issue of our sister publication, MICROmanufacturing, for more information on these technologies.)

I’ve always wanted to “drive” a vehicle like the one George Jetson had in the classic cartoon. Thanks to new technology, I just might get that chance someday! CTE

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