Ford's Virtual Tools Prevent Ergonomic Injuries, Boost Quality

Ergonomics and virtual tools are boosting quality and eliminating fatigue issues for assembly operators at Ford Motor Co., the automaker says. It uses a program with digital employees Jack and Jill and a virtual build tool set to test manufacturing feasibility of each part before physical prototypes are built, but the tools also predict and eliminate on-the-job injuries, the Dearborn, Mich., company said in a March 25 news release.

"The goal of our virtual manufacturing tools is to drive compatibility between the product design and the assembly plant process," Dan Hettel, chief engineer, Vehicle Operations, said in the release. "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." This helped Ford's quality rise by 11 percent last year in the United States, according to a Global Quality Research System study conducted in 2007 by RDA Group for Ford.

The company uses advanced motion capture technology and human modeling software to design jobs that are less physically stressful. "The benefits are fewer injuries, lower cost of tooling changes, higher quality, and faster time to market. We're seeing improvement in every one of those metrics, and our virtual technology is a factor," said Allison Stephens, Ford ergonomics technical specialist with Vehicle Operations Manufacturing Engineering. She demonstrated the ergo technology in a virtual assembly plant, where an engineer wearing a digitized harness, gloves, and headgear installed a virtual center console just as a plant operator would. A computer program used the engineer's movements to draw a digital Jack and displayed him on a large screen. "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."

Ford said it began using virtual tools to improve ergonomics in 2000 and today works with the University of Michigan and the Virtual Soldier Research program with the Department of Defense and the University of Iowa.

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