COLOGNE, Germany – Ford of Europe is developing a complete virtual factory to simulate assembly line production.
This would enable the company to improve quality and cut costs in real world manufacturing facilities after creating and analysing computer simulations of the complete vehicle production procedures.
“We have already started work on our virtual factory project, so that we won't have to go to the real assembly line to conduct tests or research possible plant upgrades,” said José Terrades, simulations engineer, Ford of Spain.
“Virtual factories will enable Ford to preview and optimise the assembly of future models at any of our plants, anywhere in the world. With the advanced simulations and virtual environments we already have at our disposal, we believe this is something Ford can achieve in the very near future.”
Ford assembles thousands of components together to manufacture a finished vehicle. Computer simulation of the assembly process enables the company to test the vehicle build process before investing in the resources required for a real-world production line. Ford became the first car maker to use computer simulations to plan vehicle assembly at facilities worldwide in 1997. Computer simulation is now an intrinsic part of Ford processes.
“The final assembly process simulations we use today allow us to do much more than simply plan our build sequences,” said Nick Newman, implementation manager, Ford of Germany. “We can piece together complete cars in a virtual environment like huge jigsaws and assess the construction down to the finest detail, and we plan to do even more in the future.”
Ford uses sophisticated camera technology to scan and digitise its real-world manufacturing facilities to create ultra-realistic 3D virtual assembly environments. The company’s Valencia plant, in Spain, is taking the lead in developing virtual factory environments, which have the potential to enable remote evaluations to be conducted from around the globe.
Special projectors and polarising, motion-sensing glasses are used to create interactive 3D virtual reality manufacturing scenarios.
The actions required by real-life assembly line operators are simulated inside these environments to help Ford ergonomics experts eliminate strenuous postures and optimise individual aspects of the assembly process.
Ford’s ergonomics experts in Cologne, Germany, use computer simulations to scrutinise the fitment process for even the smallest components, and analyse whether changes are required to make the task as straightforward as possible for the assembly-line operator.
Virtual employee “Jack” can simulate the actions of both male and female assembly line employees to test and evaluate processes in fine detail, right down to the manoeuvrability of the operator’s fingers within an enclosed space. “Jack’s” advanced software evaluates the demands on the real-world operator and uncovers 80 percent of assembly process ergonomics issues at the simulation stage.
Ford is also increasing its use of “augmented reality” vehicles. These 3D vehicle simulations combine engineering data and scanned imagery of physical prototypes to enable efficient evaluation of component integration.
Ford uses computer simulations to conduct full “virtual build events” for new vehicle programs; specialists collect digital engineering data on every component and load it into a virtual build environment, before simulating the entire assembly process from start to finish.
All these activities can reduce the need to create physical prototypes of vehicles or tooling for evaluation.
At Ford’s Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (CAVE) facility in Cologne, for example, interactive 3D interior environments of Ford development vehicles allow for evaluation of aspects including visibility, instrument reach, ergonomics and roominess before building a physical prototype.
“CAVE brings emotion into the development process,” said Joerg Querengaesser, driving environment and virtual reality supervisor, Ford of Germany. “We no longer have to view vehicles only through their technical dimensions. Now we can take a seat inside and truly experience the virtual vehicle.”