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Ford Recruits Virtual Soldier to Boost Quality

DEARBORN, Mich., May 18, 2010 – The new guy on the Ford Motor Company assembly line is an inexhaustible tough guy with impeccable military and academic credentials.

His name is Santos, a highly realistic virtual worker who doesn't just simulate motion; he records the actual physical strains of reaching, lifting and stretching. He can execute tasks autonomously. He can walk, talk and answer questions.

Originally created for the U.S. Department of Defense at the University of Iowa as part of the Virtual Soldier Research (VSR) program to help reduce physical strain on soldiers, Santos has been heralded by ergonomists as a breakthrough in digital modeling.

Santos' move from the virtual battlefield to the virtual assembly line is the latest step in Ford's efforts to improve ergonomics at its manufacturing plants.

"Creating the safest and most ergonomic way to build a vehicle is a trial-and-error process – in recent years technology has allowed this process to happen in the virtual world," said Allison Stephens, ergonomics technical specialist with Vehicle Operations Manufacturing Engineering. "Santos takes this to a new level. He can perform a task and tell us whether over months and years it will cause back strain, for example, and we can make adjustments until we find the optimal way to get the job done."

Santos builds on the company's use of digital avatars – dubbed Jack and Jill – that help Ford test ergonomics and safety on the assembly line in the virtual world. Santos goes further by allowing Ford to understand the true strain on the body when performing actions on the job.

"It's very cool in the ergo world that we can evaluate these types of movements, these lifts where you're using acceleration, or momentum – what we call the dynamics of a lift," Stephens said.

When Stephens heard about the research being done with Santos in VSR program, she was immediately intrigued. "The same issue is at work at Ford as in the military – how to analyze human limits with dynamic motion. Santos, with his capability in predictive dynamics, will aid in increasing efficiency as well as safety and quality."

Santos is the culmination of years of study in modeling, multi-body dynamics and robotics, said Jay Johnson, CEO of SantosHuman Inc., which works in conjunction with the University of Iowa.

"Our software uses a physics platform," Johnson said. "We can change things and see the effect; that's what predictive dynamics brings to the table."

Predictive dynamics uses general rules of human body movement combined with complex mathematical models and robotics to enable Santos to provide feedback on fatigue, speed, strength and torque, even as the parameters of the virtual environment change, said Tim Marler, a VSR senior research scientist.

Because Santos has been equipped with a complete biomechanical muscular system, he is subject to all the laws of physics, Marler said. "This software is a new experience – you can get feedback. You can see body strength in real time. You can see fatigue. When you have that ability to see motion, to predict motion, you can work that into your designs and programs."

The Department of Defense has been working with the University of Iowa since 2004; Ford began working with the university three years ago. Stephens formed a collaboration with GM and Chrysler to share funding, with each automotive group paying $500,000 over the past three years. The federal government has put in approximately $10 million toward development.

Santos is still in the testing phase, Stephens said, but when he comes on board, he will help Ford continue to move forward in the field of ergonomics.

"The human body is amazing, and we're always learning something new," Stephens said. "The better we understand the human body, the better we can create a safer, ergonomically correct workplace."