Virtual Manufacturing Technology - A Big Factor Behind Ford's Improving Quality
Ford Motor Company’s use of virtual manufacturing technologies is a big factor of what’s behind the company’s soaring quality performance.
As an industry leader in virtual technology, Ford uses digital tools to predict and eliminate on-the-job injuries as well as ensure manufacturing feasibility part by part.
“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, 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.”
The approach has helped see Ford’s quality improve 11 percent last year in the United States versus 2 percent for the industry average, according to a Global Quality Research System study, conducted in 2007 by RDA Group for Ford.
Virtual Ergonomics: Jack and Jill on the Line
Ford employs advanced motion capture technology – commonly used in animated movies and digital games – with human modeling software to design jobs that are less physically stressful on workers.
“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.
Stephens demonstrated to media today the ergo technology in a virtual assembly plant. An engineer outfitted in a digitized harness, gloves and head gear installed a virtual center console exactly as a plant operator would.
The engineer’s size and movements were captured and loaded into a computer program, redrawn as a digital employee, an avatar called Jack, and displayed on a large screen.
The human modeling software then determines the ergonomic and quality impact on the assembly-line work. Changes can be made quickly and efficiently to the vehicle or part design to avoid adverse impact.
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.”
Ford has been advancing its approach to digital ergonomics work since it began using virtual tools to improve ergonomics in 2000. The company is collaborating with the University of Michigan as part of a technology consortium as well as participating in the Virtual Soldier Research program with the Department of Defense and the University of Iowa.
Building the Vehicle, Virtually
As a part of the company’s product development, the ergonomic data are handed off to the Virtual Build Arena, where the program team – designers, engineers, suppliers and line operators – assemble the vehicle part by part, virtually.
This happens long before the first physical parts are produced and a prototype vehicle is built. 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, i.e., how well the parts go together in the assigned sequence and at the specific plant where the vehicle is to be produced.
“The impact on cost-savings and quality improvement is significant,” said Cheryl Bruins-Rozier, Virtual Build manager.
Bruins-Rozier said the technology contributed to high quality early builds of the Ford Flex and Lincoln MKS, both launching this summer. In each case, 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,” she said. “These products are on track to launch at world-class levels.
The U.S. GQRS study, conducted for Ford by RDA Group, asks customers of all major makes and models to comment on vehicle trouble and rate their overall satisfaction with their three-month-old vehicles.