Ford developing 3D virtual assembly environment
Automotive giant Ford has begun developing a complete virtual factory to simulate assembly line production and deliver quality and cost improvements.
The innovative technology, which relies on sophisticated camera systems to scan and digitise real-world manufacturing facilities, is aimed at enabling the company's engineers to collaborate on 'virtual build events' and interactive 3D vehicle analysis.
"Virtual factories will enable Ford to preview and optimise the assembly of future models at any of our plants, anywhere in the world," said José Terrades, simulations engineer, Ford of Spain. "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."
Terrades believes the technology has the potential to enable remote evaluations to be conducted from around the globe. "It means we can piece together complete cars in a virtual environment like huge jigsaws and assess the construction down to the finest detail," he noted.
The system utilises special projectors and polarising, motion-sensing glasses, which 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.
Computer simulations are then used 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.
The technology also makes use of a virtual employee called 'Jack', who simulates 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 is optimised to evaluate the demands on the real-world operator and uncover 80% of assembly process ergonomics issues at the simulation stage.
Ford is also said to be 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. Computer simulations are used to to conduct full 'virtual build events' for new vehicle programmes, whereby 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 are aimed at reducing 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 have allowed 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."
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