Who’s That (Virtual) Girl? Ford Uses Motion Capture Technology to Design Worker-Friendly Factories

Play too many video games and you might get repetitive strain injuries (RSI). But Ford Motor is adopting video game technology so its workers don’t get RSI.

The company, based in Dearborn, MI, is using Hollywood-style motion capture technology (the kind that makes Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers so lifelike on Madden 2011) to design ergonomically friendly manufacturing plants for its workers in places like China and Brazil.

“We want to integrate ergonomics into the engineering process, create an interface between assembly worker and assembly line,” says Allison Stephens, an ergonomic specialist with Ford’s vehicle operations and manufacturing engineering unit. “We want to immerse someone in that environment [before the company builds the plant]. As you go global, how do you modify or adjust processes to deal with workers of all shapes and sizes?”

Makers of cars and airplanes are increasingly embracing digital manufacturing—the use of sophisticated 3-D software that simulates the working of a plant before it goes into operation.

With digital manufacturing, companies essentially perform a virtual dry run on a planned production facility, allowing engineers to figure out where to best position workers, equipment, supplies and tools, and in what order. Delmia, a unit of Dassault Systems based in Auburn Hills, MI, is one of the world’s largest makers of such software.

But Ford takes it one step further by employing motion capture technology, which movie studios and video game designers frequently use to create digital onscreen characters that realistically mimic human movement. Such data allows Ford to collect more detailed information like the angle of a worker’s elbow when performing a specific task.

Here’s how it works. Working with the University of Pennsylvania, Ford collected data from workers from six plants around the world, including arm girths and leg and torso lengths.

Using the data, the company created “Jack” and “Jill,” avatars that represent a composite male and female global worker for Ford.

Inside a virtual reality lab in Dearborn, Ford uses employees like Patty Racco, who best resembles the physical characteristics of Jill, as a kind of virtual guinea pig. Demonstrating the technology to a group of reporters, Racco, who is covered with sensors, mimics assembly work on a steel frame that represents a Ford Focus.

A series of 15 digital cameras “captures” information collected by the sensors and feeds that data into a computer. On a large screen, Jill (controlled by Racco) is seen working on a digital Ford Focus in a digital factory.

In one case, Ford discovered that Jill, (at 5’4, the smallest Ford worker) had a hard time installing a part in the car’s interior. So the company designed a tool that enabled Jill to reach into the car without straining her back and arms.

The technology also boosts product quality and efficiency by allowing Ford to develop “a plan for every part,” Stephens says.

Ford shares such technology with competitors like General Motors and Chrysler. What the company does consider proprietary is how it uses the technology.

Eventually, Ford wants to use “Santos,” another digital avatar developed for the military’s Virtual Solider Program. With Santos, companies can measure worker fatigue and the cumulative effects of heavy lifting and loading.

“The technology is coming soon in which we can run the entire assembly line digitally,” Stephens said.

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