Digital operators help engineers predict the ergonomic effects of long-term repetitive motions.

Manufacturing engineers at Ford Motor Co. (Dearborn, MI) use digital tools and virtual manufacturing technology to simulate assembly tasks. That helps them predict and eliminate repetitive-stress and other on-the-job injuries.

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

Ford engineers combine advanced motion capture technology, which is commonly used in animated movies and digital games, with human modeling software to design jobs that are less physically stressful on operators.

“The benefits are fewer injuries, lower cost of tooling changes, higher quality and faster time to market,” claims Allison Stephens, ergonomics technical specialist with Ford’s vehicle operations manufacturing engineering department. “We’re seeing improvement in every one of those metrics, and our virtual technology is a factor.”

To simulate assembly line tasks, an engineer wears a digitized harness, gloves and headgear. The individual’s size and movements are captured and loaded into a computer program, redrawn as a digital employee and displayed on a large screen.

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

“With this technology, our digital employees-Jack and Jill-are helping us predict the ergonomic affect of long-term repetitive motions,” says Stephens. “The impact on health and safety metrics, as well as on quality, has been tremendous.”

Ford has been fine-tuning its digital ergonomics work since it began using virtual software tools in 2000. The company is collaborating with the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) as part of a technology consortium. It also participates in the Virtual Soldier Research program with the U.S. Department of Defense (Washington, DC) and the University of Iowa (Iowa City).

“Ford has integrated ergonomic requirements into product design specifications and customer quality checks,” says Hettel. As part of the company’s product development process, the ergonomic data are handed off 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,” explains Hettel. In fact, the virtual build event takes place 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. Engineers evaluate how well the parts go together in the assigned sequence.

Digital technology contributed to high quality early builds of new vehicles such as the Ford Flex and Lincoln MKS. In each case, Hettel says the vehicle reached the prototype build stage with 80 percent fewer manufacturing feasibility issues. Thanks to the virtual tools, parts compatibility on both vehicles was extremely high.