Ford using avatar to improve ergonomics

Engineers at the Ford Motor Company are making use of a highly realistic avatar which can provide feedback on fatigue, speed and strength as it performs tasks in a virtual environment.

The virtual worker – called Santos – was originally created for the US Department of Defence at the University of Iowa as part of the Virtual Soldier Research (VSR) program to help reduce physical strain on soldiers.

Santos resides in a virtual environment with a set of variables that the user can manipulate to effect changes in the way he interacts with the environment.

His move from the virtual battlefield to the virtual assembly line is the latest step in Ford’s efforts to improve ergonomics at its manufacturing plants.

’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,’ said Allison Stephens, ergonomics technical specialist with Vehicle Operations Manufacturing Engineering.

’Santos can perform a task and tell us whether over months and years it will cause strain on the body when performing actions on a job, and we can make adjustments (to the process) until we find the optimal way to get the job done,’ she added..

Ford’s Stephens formed a collaboration with GM and Chrysler to share funding of the Santos software, with each automotive group paying $500,000 over the past three years. The US federal government has also contributed approximately $10m towards its development.

Santos is still in the testing phase. Stephens said, but when he comes on board, he will help Ford continue to move forward in the field of ergonomics.

SantosHuman, which works in conjunction with the University of Iowa, and supplied the simulation software to Ford, has also developed a female avatar called Sophia. She embodies the same biomechanically accurate modelling and simulation of human activities as Santos, with one exception – her strength settings have been modified to simulate that of 65 per cent of North American women.