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Ford Recruits Virtual Factory Worker

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On: Wed, May 26, 2010 at 5:10PM | By: Sherry Christiansen

Ford Recruits Virtual Factory Worker

Many manufacturers have implemented robotics to assist them in evaluating safe ergonomics for their employees, but Ford Motor Company has taken a step into the future as the company has recruited a virtual factory worker who can perform extraordinary feats.

He even has a name: Santos. Santos is a very unusual virtual worker in that he can decide to perform a task autonomously such as; walking, talking, and even answering questions when asked. His programming was designed to simulate the same movements and restrictions that humans encounter, and to enable the robot to record physical limits when he is working, such as how far he can reach, or how much weight he can lift, or to record when the simulated human body becomes fatigued.

Santos was originally designed by the Department of Defense at the University of Iowa. He was created as a virtual soldier to help identify and reduce physical strain in live soldiers.

The remarkable robot has been deemed “as a breakthrough in digital modeling,” Allison Stephens, ergonomics technical specialist, stated. "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. 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."

Stephens also stated that "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." The robot has been programmed with a complete muscular system that mimics the human body’s biology so that he can exhibit concurrent body mechanics. This allows analysts to study the immediate effects of movement on the body, such as fatigue and muscle failure in order to predict which type of work in the factory will minimize stress.

The Santos program has cost the government a total of $10 million so far. Automakers such as Ford, GM, and Chrysler have worked in partnership to share funding, each group of automakers has contributed $500,000 in the past three years.

Santos is still in the testing stages, but in the future, Ford hopes that he will give the company insight into creating a safer and more productive way for automotive employees to work..


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