Ford takes cues from Avatar

Uses motion capture technology to build a 'digital worker'

Jim Chiang in the process of motion capturing the human subject.

Jim Chiang in the process of motion capturing the human subject.

As Ford slowly recovers from the impact of the global financial crisis on car sales, particularly in the US, the company has looked to Hollywood for the design of its first digital worker.

Combining Avatar-inspired motion capture technology with human modelling software, the manikin is designed for use in ergonomic assessments of its workers to make their working environment easier.

Ford US vehicle operations manufacturing engineering ergonomics specialist, Allison Stephens, said in a statement that the manikin would be used for virtual build projects.

"In the virtual build event, the digital workers assemble the vehicle part by part on a wall sized computer screen as the program team scrutinises the vehicle’s manufacturing feasibility such as how well the parts go together in the assigned sequence and at the specific plant where the vehicle is to be produced."

The worker's first assignments are for new products planned for assembly plants in China, the Ford Focus being assembled in Germany and the US, and the Ranger, which is being built in Thailand and South Africa.

“We need to have all four regions of Ford using the same manikin,” said Stephens. “Because we’re building global vehicles, we need to have one engineering direction. That’s what we have done."

To determine the dimensions of the workers, Ford North America and Ford of Europe collected data from their operators in six assembly plants around the world — Mexico, Spain, China, Germany, England and the US.

The data was then analysed by a researcher at Penn State, who determined a dimension that would reflect Ford’s global worker population. These manikins can then be customised to the regional Ford population that is building a specific vehicle.

“This is a very important move, because now everyone has the benefits of our high standards,” she said. “We’re matching our job demands to our worker capability, so our assembly workers benefit, and because they can do the jobs correctly, customers get the benefit of our improved quality.”

So far, Ford headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, and Merkenich, Germany, have motion capture technology labs where new ergonomic studies can be performed as new vehicles are designed. Visualisation centres are being developed for Ford Asia Pacific and South America with 3D television sets.

“If we do ergonomic studies for those places, we can simply send them the files and they can watch the studies in 3D. They won’t have to go to the expense of building their own motion capture labs,” said Stephens.

A Ford Australia spokesman could not confirm if a motion capture facility would be built in Australia but said in a statement that the company was looking at ways to improve workplace ergonomics.

In May, the US arm of the company announced that it was planning to use the Google Prediction API to predict driver behaviour and use that input to make cars perform better.

The company's goal was to use Cloud-based storage and computing to collect and process information about how drivers use their vehicles. Accessing those resources over a wireless network, a vehicle could automatically change how it performs, according to Ford.

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