Aachen, Germany – When it comes to the art and science of designing a functional and inviting vehicle interior, Ford has a secret weapon – a robot with a human touch.
The Robotised Unit for Tactility and Haptics, or RUTH, is a machine designed by Ford that combines a computer’s eye for detail with human perceptions of quality through touch and feel. Engineers at Ford’s European Research Centre in Aachen, Germany, employ RUTH to fine-tune vehicle interiors – from the feel and operation of switches to the texture and consistency of materials.
Ford engineers have recently been using RUTH to help design the optimal steering wheel by comparing the robot’s measurements with detailed market research into customer perceptions of quality, such as the softness of leather and foam combinations.
Ford engineers have been using RUTH’s ability to measure temperature and roughness in fine detail to develop steering wheel controls for the new Ford Focus that have the same high-quality metallic feel as those from luxury models.
Ford engineers “teach” RUTH which qualities feel good to human hands by linking the human perception to the robot’s detailed measurements. By referring back to the data, RUTH can then predict whether new components will appeal to Ford customers. RUTH’s detailed and consistent approach supports the subjective analysis of Ford’s human quality experts.
“We analysed the results of a customer clinic on steering wheels and compared them to the readings RUTH had given us,” says Mark Spingler, Ford technical expert, vehicle interior technologies. “Normally we would say above 80 per cent is a correlation that is statistically significant, but RUTH’s readings on which steering wheels were most appealing to customers were 92 per cent accurate, which is really outstanding.”
In order to ensure the most precise recreation of a person’s sense of touch, Ford’s engineers have developed special attachments for RUTH, such as robotic fingers that accurately simulate how a human perceives friction and roughness.
“When measuring friction the challenge was to model human skin, so we developed a friction finger with an underlay to monitor the feel of softness and the friction of the surface,” Spingler adds.
Ford engineers also have equipped RUTH with a new tool to measure surface temperature and determine how that temperature will be perceived by human hands.
“Different materials such as wood, plastic or metal can have the same temperature but a completely different feel, and until we had developed the special tool for use by RUTH, there was no method for measuring this,” Spingler says.
Although RUTH has the ability to process the sense of touch much like a human, the robot bears little resemblance to Ford’s European Research Centre’s more traditional engineers. The compact robotic arm is equipped with flexible joints that allow it to position the various tools and “fingers” that can be attached to its head in the most realistic manner. This allows RUTH to touch objects just like a Ford customer, and take highly accurate readings.
RUTH’s most high profile work to date has been in switch touch and feel, measuring aspects such as friction, wobble, elasticity, stiffness, stickiness, roughness and surface temperature.
“Perceptions of quality can be based on the materials used and the efforts and craftsmanship customers feel have gone into the product,” Spingler adds. “We can only methodically improve what we can measure in a robust and reliable manner and RUTH allows us to do what was previously impossible; measure a human-based evaluation.”